Watson was the name of both Sherlock Holmes’ fictional assistant and Alexander Graham Bell’s real one, as well as the IBM supercomputer (named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson) that beat the human champions of the Jeopardy! TV show. Playwright Madeleine George has built an entire play on this coincidence. “The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence” adds a fourth and I think fifth Watson, and tells all the Watson stories more or less simultaneously, presenting yet another opportunity this year for some talented actors to play multiple parts. In this case, three juggle all the different characters in three different centuries. The play may be worth seeing just to watch the digitally-quick transformations of John Ellison Conlee, who plays all the Watsons.
The play is an ambitious, intelligent effort to present a range of issues involving technology, politics, society and love. Some of the questions it provokes: Have new technologies enhanced us as individuals, or taken away our individuality? Would machines make better companions, because more consistent, than human beings? On balance, has technology helped human beings connect, or has it driven us apart?
All this food for thought should lead to a rich meal, but there is both too much to digest in The Watson Intelligence, and not enough that’s fully cooked.
The play begins with a funny scene between Eliza (Amanda Quaid, who plays all the Elizas) and Watson. This Eliza is a computer programmer, and this Watson is her creation – a machine that mimics a human being for the purpose of conversation. It is just one of her projects. Another is Mike (M-i-c), “a natural-language-processing pain management system, for hospitals.” Another that she is shopping around to venture capital firms is “a low-cost, high-performance companion unit that will act as a personal advocate for people at the fringes of society.”
The next scene is between a different Watson and Merrick (David Costabile, familiar to viewers of Breaking Bad as the murdered chemist Gale.) This Watson is a computer repairman, a member of something called the Dweeb Team, and he is fixing Merrick’s computer. Merrick, we learn, is running for local auditor because he’s outraged at how the system has let down the citizens – snippets of Tea Party rhetoric enter into what are basically monologues (Watson is monosyllabic.) Merrick, as it turns out, is Eliza’s ex-husband, and he winds up hiring Watson to spy on her. (Spoiler alert: He does so, and falls in love with her.)
In the next scene, it is more than a century earlier, and Eliza visits Sherlock Holmes, meeting Watson in his stead, and asking him to investigate the strange behavior of her husband, an inventor named Merrick, and the weird puncture wounds that she has discovered on her arm. (Watson solves the mystery, which is too good to spoil, and is both amusing and thought-provoking)
The next scene is a quick one. Merrick says to Watson “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” – the famous first telephone transmission by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant.
I offer summaries of the first few scenes here to suggest how initially promising the experience of watching The Watson Intelligence, how it becomes dizzying, then disconnecting, and peters out into disappointing. Any one of these plots could have been sufficient frame for George’s intriguing themes, which are mostly explored in the speeches, rather than dramatized, although a couple of these speeches are intellectually stimulating if not outright inspiring. But the concoction that is “The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence” winds up too complicated. We could have used a play more elementary for dear Watson.
The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence
At Playwrights Horizons
By Madeleine George; directed by Leigh Silverman; sets by Louisa Thompson; costumes by Anita Yavich; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Matt Tierney; original music by Peter Stopschinski
Cast: David Costabile (Merrick), Amanda Quaid (Eliza) and John Ellison Conlee (Watson).
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission.
The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence is scheduled to run through December 29, 2013