Science fiction tends to play by its own generous rules, but it helps to have a clearly defined purpose and a consistent tone. Those two traits are lacking in J-F Bibeau's "Self, Inc.," a Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry getting its premiere by the Theatrical Mining Company at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.
The time travel-reliant plot concerns personal identity-related issues within a corporate context, but it's not certain exactly what Bibeau wants to say about such things. That fuzzy purpose isn't helped any by a tone that's usually campy, but occasionally aims for more dramatic heft.
This play's setting is the corporate headquarters for a trash processing company known as Total Refuse. Its employees are an oddball assortment of personality types whose extroverted behavior makes it seem like they would be more at home in an improv-oriented comedy club than in a corporate office.
Incidentally, the playwright has a background writing fantasy novels and short plays. He's also done improv and stand-up comedy. "Self, Inc.," which is his first produced full-length play, is very much the creation of a writer still trying to master that longer format.
It's telling that the play does not have a very firm handle on its setting and what seems probable for such a place and time. Characters state that it's 2061, but why are there so many early-21st-century cultural references in their joke-filled conversations? It's highly unlikely that people 50 years from now will be so completely on the same pop-cultural wavelength as we are.
These cultural jokes are dispensed in short scenes that are stitched together as if this were a sketch comedy program aspiring to be a cohesive play. Individual gags are funny, but there isn't much by way of thematic flow.
The protagonist, Francis Elfman (Brandon Gorin), is something of a loner in the office. He has secretly been tinkering with a scientific gizmo on company time. Represented by a modified trash can, this time travel machine is a prime example of this production's humorously low-tech esthetic.
For reasons lost somewhere in the universe, this machine produces a clone of Francis known as Francis 2 (Carroll Haupt). Their overtly philosophical discussions as to who is the "real" Francis have scripted potential, but it's not realized in a play whose attention span is as short as its scenes.
There's also some fun as unwitting employees assume there is only their passive and polite colleague Francis and don't realize that sometimes they're encountering his rude-mannered double. The mistaken identity aspect of the scripting won't cause Shakespeare to lose any eternal sleep, but there are enough amusing scenes to make one think that the script has possibilities.
Among supporting characters, the most vividly etched is Francis' formidable boss, Helena Studs (Foxglove Zayuri). This actor has stage presence and gives a confident performance in a show that otherwise only gets so-so marks for its acting. Other cast members are Joseph M. Dunn, Tamika B. Roland, Micah Chalmer, Stacey Bonds, Dale Henderson Jr. and the playwright himself.
There is no shortage of energy expended by the performers working under director Da'Minique M. Williams, but that energy is zapping around to little purpose. The performers are having a great time acting as if it were 2061, but what about those of us watching the play in 2011?
"Self, Inc." runs through July 31 at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, at 4701 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 except for pay-what-you-can on Thursday. Go to http://www.tmc.originalplays.com.