CAMBRIDGE - There’s something touchingly innocent about the belief in technology as a force for peace, considering how often it has been anything but.
“Futurity: A Musical by the Lisps,’’ now receiving its world premiere at Oberon in a production presented by the American Repertory Theater and directed by Sarah Benson, is set during an especially bloody period in US history: the Civil War.
A Union soldier and would-be inventor named Julian Munro harbors utopian hopes for a steam-powered artificial-intelligence contraption, or, as it is eventually dubbed, a “steam brain.’’
Envisioning the device as a way to “end all human strife,’’ Julian enlists the aid of Ada Lovelace, a brainy British mathematician who is the daughter of no less a personage than Lord Byron.
Ambitious, high-minded, sporadically engaging, and even captivating, “Futurity’’ is ultimately unsatisfying.
As a concert by the Brooklyn-based indie band the Lisps, it works pretty well. As the musical it aspires to be, though, “Futurity’’ falls short, undone by stilted, mannered dialogue and too many scenes that go slack or drift into speechifying.
In the crucial role of Julian, César Alvarez is fatally passive.
His Julian seldom seems to burn with idealistic zeal, seldom convinces us that this young infantryman is so consumed by a passion to eradicate war that he is willing to challenge the existing boundaries of science, even metaphysics.
When, in a discussion of warfare with a general played by Edwin Lee Gibson, Julian says, “We could put an end to it,’’ he could be idly commenting on the weather for all the emotion Alvarez brings to the line.
To be fair, Alvarez is a singer, songwriter, and a founder of the Lisps. He wrote the lyrics to “Futurity,’’ collaborated on the book with Molly Rice, and wrote the music for the show with the Lisps.
Alvarez is somewhat more persuasive when he is strumming a guitar and giving voice to Julian’s dream in songs like “Don’t Wait’’: “There’s a war that I’ll solve/ With the twist of a knob. . . . There’s a war that I’ll end/ With this old fountain pen/ There’s a future that’s better/ Than what we’ve got now.’’
As Ada, who engages in a spoken correspondence with Julian, Sammy Tunis, a founding member of the Lisps, exudes a combination of intelligence, confidence, and quiet grace. (While Julian is a fictional creation, Ada Lovelace was indeed the daughter of Lord Byron and a mathematical pioneer who explored the idea of artificial intelligence, though she died a decade before the Civil War).
Ada spends parts of “Futurity’’ on the Oberon catwalk, pacing before a blackboard covered with diagrams and mathematical theorems and quarreling with her mother, Lady Byron, who is played by the estimable Anne Gottlieb.
Lady Byron is implacably opposed to her daughter’s collaboration with the American soldier, viewing it as sheer lunacy.
In a scene where Lady Byron is reminding Ada of her father’s scandalous excesses, the mother says, in a line that is all too characteristic of the dialogue in “Futurity’’: “If you cannot bring to mind with sufficient force how that madness gutted our home, frayed every bond of decency, left our name scorched in the mouths of our friends . . .’’
While Benson, the director, has not solved the pacing problems presented by the script, she makes astute use of the Oberon space, especially in a scene where a high-speed assembly line materializes in the middle of the audience and later, when the steam brain is finally activated.
It is an imposing contraption, an assemblage of pipes and coils that suggests the past’s idea of the future.
But another piece of new technology also makes an appearance in “Futurity,’’ one that will have its own deadly role to play in that future: a repeating rifle.