Monday, November 18, 2013

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, at Playwrights Horizons, November 16, 2013

Madeleine George's gimmicky new play, a riff on sidekicks named Watson and their roles in history (real and fictionalized), is Playwrights Horizons' latest commission to reach their main stage.

The concept has merit, four Watsons all played by the same actor (John Ellison Conlee) flanked by three Mr. and Mrs. Merricks (David Costabile and Amanda Quaid), covering Sherlock Holmes' doctor friend, Alexander Graham Bell's assistant Thomas Watson, a computer repairman dweeb Josh Watson, and a fictional computer successor to IBM's 2011 Watson (a contestant on television's Jeopardy!). 

Ms. George spent a great deal of time trying to add intricacy in blending the story lines, but in the second act, things begin to unravel. After carefully allowing for proper costume changes, the transitions no longer allow the visual to match the script.  She also falls prey to a gratuitous nude scene at the top of Act 2 and an absurd and superfluous overuse of the word "preternatural."

This three-hander bounces about from sub-plot to sub-plot in increasingly frenetic jumps.  Initially, each scene is introduced with a shadowy variation on the line "Mr. Watson - come here - I want you," the delivered inflection of which intends to foreshadow the nature of the following interaction. After all the stumbling around, Bell's infamous quote becomes an odd moral of the play about one person's commitment to another, be they spouse, co-worker, whatever in a rambling speech from Ms. Quaid's contemporary Mrs. Merrick.  (Yeah, I was confused, too.) 

Director Leigh Silverman has assembled a talented cast to take on this effort.  Mr. Conlee's brings his four Watsons as much delineation as he can, though it is the artificial Watson's pleasant dead-pan that rang the truest.  Ms. Quaid fares a bit better in the writing of her Mrs. Merrick variations, the most contemporary being a brilliant computer engineer who conceived, built and programmed the artificial-intelligence Watson with the purpose of gathering input from users to help in medical diagnoses. Oddly, given a play's "free-pass" in the suspension of disbelief, Ms. George decides not to name the new computer Watson.  (Why not Dr. Watson, or Watson MD??)  Mr. Costabile gets the juiciest speeches from a political diatribe at the beginning when his account Merrick is running for local Auditor, to a Holmesian villain inventing weapons of death. Overall, the performances are consistent, but the flaws in the book hold back both the cast and director. 

Louisa Thompson's set is serviceable and sufficiently lit by Mark Barton. Anita Yavich does her best with costumes, but the script interferes with successful changes more than once.

The...Watson Intelligence runs through December 29.  See my previous post for discount ticket information.

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