The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
Isn’t this a tricky bit of sleight of hand. Three Elizas, three Franks and four Watsons all overlap in the present, the past and the way past.
In the present, (2011) Eliza I (Amanda Quaid) is having a conversation with the incredibly human-like robot she has just built. This is one terrific scene. Watson I (John Ellison Conlee) is a plain spoken robot who only wants to “give you what you need” he tells Eliza. This fact is heady fodder for Eliza, who is on the run from her former employer, IBM – who she thinks may have it out for her because of a teensie bit of proprietary material that she may or may not have usurped, and from her husband Frank Merrick (David Costabile) who she KNOWS has it out for her because he is a wildly jealous and suspicious man. Also an annoying one who phones constantly.
In addition to these present details, the afore mentioned Frank who is carrying on a one man campaign to become Auditor of his Fair City. Even though it seems that the only folks who know what an auditor is and what an auditor does are the candidates, when Franks’s computer crashes he takes it as personal affront to his candidacy. He calls in the Dweeb Squad, and within minutes his personal team member arrives. Name? Scott Watson (Watson II) of course. Soon the two are embroiled in conversations of a far reaching nature, and Frank solicits this Watson’s deductive skills in tailing Eliza. Watson accepts the job and fumbles the task so badly that his cover is blown and romance rushes in the door.
Elizabeth II appears next in 19th century London at the home of Sherlock Holmes(or is it the home of Dr. Watson…. Hmmmnnn) where she arrives to present a mysterious case of odd puncture marks on her arms as well as a woeful tale of her husband, Merrick. Holmes having gone out, Watson III takes it upon himself to track down Merrick II, who is some kind of tricked out rapscallion – one of the best costume changes EVER – and should be at the very least challenged to fess up to his snarky doings.
The fourth Watson appears with Eliza III (Stop me if I’m going too fast) on a 1931 radio show where he is THE Watson of Alexander Graham Bell’s, “Watson, come here. I want you.” In this bittersweet scene we watch as Eliza commandeers Watson’s entire existence and condenses it into less than 10 minutes of air time. That this Watson has much more to say and give is obvious to everyone but his interviewer.
All is not lost, however, as Watson IV has a return engagement to enlighten Eliza I on the connectedness of life. Seems that Eliza I has tossed Watson out on his ear because she loves him and has a hard time being with him. She has returned, if just for a visit, to her husband Frank I who is the Auditor de la Cité and a billion times calmer.
Because of the skill of these fine actors as well as the direction of Leigh Silverman we never loose a beat. The outstanding set by Louisa Thompson (never has so much been asked of, and granted by, so few yards of curtain. I would go again just to see those set changes).
The script, while inventive and demanding both for the audience and the actors doesn’t keep up with the pace that Ms. George may have intended. For one thing, none of the stories connect in anything other than a coincidental way. Several folks by the same name in different stories do not a tapestry make. Then there are the technical oddities – the first being that the computer belonging to Frank is an old tower with floppy disk drives. This, even for 2011, would be considered out dated. In addition our Dweeb Watson does more staring that hands on action. As a person who has often been on the receiving end of a Geek call, these folks are all business. No time for small talk. Too bad because there was a lot of good material in that scene. Finally, while Mr. Conlee is a marvelous character actor, there was no sexual chemistry between the present day Eliza and Watson. The sexual connection between Watson and Eliza in that department was on paper only. Because this was the nugget of their attraction to one another it left a gaping hole in the story.
The whole premise is wildly inspirational and makes the standard play structure of events in order seem staid. The end product, however, does not make it to the heights for which Ms. George is aiming. This artistic team did everything they could to corral this puppy, but it proved an unwieldy beast with a mind of its own. I for one look forward to seeing another piece by Ms. George and hope she keeps on keepin’ on.
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence By Madeleine George; directed by Leigh Silverman
WITH: David Costabile (Merrick), Amanda Quaid (Eliza) and John Ellison Conlee (Watson).
Sets by Louisa Thompson; costumes by Anita Yavich; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Matt Tierney; original music by Peter Stopschinski; production stage manager, David H. Lurie. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director. At Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, Clinton, 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Through Dec. 29. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes.