Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence

The new play by Madeleine George is clever as its titular brainy helpmeet(s), but the concept soon grows thin.

“Clever” is the word for Madeleine George’s bright idea of writing a play about those go-to guys named Watson with the solution to every scientific mystery from AI to corrupted computer files. With helmer Leigh Silverman facilitating the dizzying time leaps and character pileups of this techno-comedy, the scribe explores our slavish dependence on humanoid robots (and robotic humans) in order to function.  But once she conjures up the likes of IBM’s supercomputer named Watson and Sherlock Holmes’s faithful chronicler of the same name, she doesn’t tax them with anything more significant than counseling the lovelorn on commitment issues. 

Given the structural complexity of this whimsical piece — which occupies a sprawling timeframe (from 1876 to 2011) and is performed by three hard-working (and totally up to it) thespians in multiple roles — a few program notes are in order:

Watson #1 is Thomas A. Watson, the lab assistant that Alexander Graham Bell famously rang up on the first telephone call in 1876.

Watson #2 is Dr. John H. Watson, ever at the service of Sherlock Holmes in 1889 to record the coming and going of clients at 221B Baker Street.

Watson #3 is the IBM supercomputer — named after Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM — that beat two reigning champs at “Jeopardy!” in 2011.

Watson #4 is the ur-techno-nerd, the ubiquitous Computer Guy companies dispatch to keep clients from attacking their balky equipment with an ax.

The most ingratiating Watson, though, is the robot (played by John Ellison Conlee with the good humor he brings to all the other Watsons) that a present-day computer scientist named Eliza (an endearingly neurotic perf from Amanda Quaid) has programmed to dance attendance on her.  “More than anything, I just want to give you what you need” he drones, in “ardent” robot-speak.  When asked for anything beyond his computerized skills, he’s got a great programmed response:  “I don’t think I understand what you mean, but I’d like to.  Can you give me a nudge in the right direction?”

The scenes between the emotionally demanding Eliza and this accommodating man-puppet are both the funniest and the most emotionally rich scenes in the play.  As the archetypal brainy-but-unfulfilled woman, Eliza embodies that frustrated yearning for Mr. Fixit, along with the attendant fears of surrendering her autonomy to that know-it-all monster.

A living, breathing Watson in the person of a computer techie (a member of the “Dweeb Team,” according to his company logo) also lives to serve.  But the client whose computer he’s servicing, an undistinguished politician and sleazy human being named Frank Merrick (David Costabile, making no excuses for this guy).  Although Watson is the kind of easygoing guy who habitually avoids conflict, he comes up with a zinger when he hears Merrick’s political platform. “You’re running for election to the government so you can … dismantle the government?”

The other, historical pairings are also clever in concept, but the dynamic is more mechanically calculated — and less fun.

Leaving modern-day Merrick to his sleazy business of spying on his ex-wife, the Eliza we’ve already met, the scribe skips back in time to Victorian England, where another Eliza, the wife of another Frank Merrick, calls on Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street and ends up sharing her concerns about her husband, an iconic mad inventor, with the kindly Dr. Watson.

Like all the other Merricks we meet, this creepy Victorian model is a pathologically jealous control freak who smothers his lover with obsessive affection and then blames her for emasculating him.  “Sometimes the only way to achieve independence,” he coolly opines, “is to destroy the thing you’re dependent on.”

The Victorian Merrick’s solution to this vexing conundrum is to ditch the unpredictable human lover and build a robot.  That’s precisely what modern-day Eliza does when she terminates her love affair with the flesh-and-blood Watson — a “preternaturally chill” man who is “purely, perfectly self-contained” — and replaces him with his robotic namesake.

More Watsons and Merricks and Elizas step out of their historical eras to enter the fray — a theatrical device that would tickle Tom Stoppard (think “Jumpers” or “Arcadia”).  But with each iteration her characters become thinner and more insubstantial, and instead of deepening the philosophical debate, a la Stoppard, they keep repeating their arguments in the hollow tones of perfect robots.

Off Broadway Review: 'The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence'

Playwrights Horizons; 198 seats; $70 top.  Opened Dec. 9, 2013. Reviewed Dec. 5.  Running time:  TWO HOURS, 20 MIN.

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Madeleine George. 

Creative

Directed by Leigh Silverman.  Sets, Louisa Thompson; costumes, Anita Yavich; lighting design, Mark Barton; sound, Matt Tierney; original music, Peter Stopschinski; production stage manager, David H. Lurie.

Cast

David Constable; Amanda Quaid; John Ellison Conlee.

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