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A CurtainUp Review
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
' By Elyse Sommer
As they have in the past, the powers that be at Playwrights Horizon have given a playwright heretofore seen mostly in smaller, less high profile venues (Zero Hour ran at Walker Space) a production with bells and whistles stagecraft, a top of the line director and a splendid cast. Neither Leigh Silverman's expert direction or the excellent three-person, multiple character cast can save The Watson Intelligence from ultimately failing to live up to its first act's promise. However, there are enough enjoyable parts to this world premiere's ultimately disappointing sum to make it worth seeing.
Ms. George certainly has come up with an at once fun and thought provoking conceit that announces itself even as you enter the theater lobby with a photo booth labeled "Beta Version 1.0." This booth allows early arrivals to take a picture of themselves and get into the mood of George's time-jumping saga about technology's effect on our lives and psyches, with a nod to the non-mechanical system of deductive reasoning via the presence of Sherlock Holmes' sidekick Dr. Watson.
The time traveling segments begin in 2011. In case you forgot, that's the year IBM programmers designed a natural language processing super computer named Watson for telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell's engineer Thomas A. Watson, best known as the recipient of Bell's first telephone message ("Mr. Watson—come here—I want you". That's a lot of ground to cover for just three actors, but that doesn't daunt Amanda Quaid, David Costabile and John Ellison Conlee. The trio adeptly inhabits various characters as called for. While their costumes and personas change, their name remain the same throughout. .
Thus Amanada Quaid is Eliza Merrick, a modern woman who's left her husband (David Costabile) to pursue his political ambitions while she develops a super computer as part of her PhD. She's also Victorian era wife of the neurotic inventor of the piston steam engine (Costabile again) and in a 1931 scene she's a glamorous interviewer for a Bell Labs Recording Studio radio program paying homage to the history of the telephone.
Quaid's pivotal role is as Eliza, the modern day high tech career woman whose super-smart creation (the first of John Ellison Conlee's smarly differentiated four Watsons) is likely to make her a tech-start-up billionaire, but also leads to unanticipated personal entanglements. Fine actress that she is, Quaid manages to also make a strong impression with her smaller roles. The name Eliza may be an authorial nod to George Bernard Shaw's flower girl who was transformed into a lady by Professor Higgins. As the 2011 Eliza needs to free herself from being taken over by her robot, so Shaw's Eliza needed to break free free from Higgins dominance to truly reap the benefits of her newly gained skills.
Costabile also ably differentiates between various Merricks. He's especially funny as the jealousy obsessed candidate for city auditor who's running on a tea party style platform. All his characters are given to entertaining nonstop rants that come off a bit like verbal equivalents of Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs.
The most memorable of Ms. George's multiple characters are the four Watsons: The robotic but almost human Watson, Eliza uses to deal with her personal problems. . . the "dweep squad" computer technician Eliza's paranoid husband turns into a modern day Sherlock Holmes with unintended consequences . . . the telephone inventor's trusty assistant and Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street cohort who at one point poses as Dr. Mycroft (the playwright's playful inside joke, as this was the name of Holmes's brother). Each is a star turn for the versatile John Ellison Conlee.
A mere description of the fast-paced segues from era to era, characters to characters can only hint at the fun of seeing it all mesh together, or at least come close to doing so. Suffice it to say that Louisa Thompson's set is as versatile as the actors and greatly facilitates the smooth transitions, as do Anita Yavich's costumes.
In the process of connecting the various strands the playwright touches on numerous well worth exploring themes— the value and importance of support players, the danger of life improving inventions like Eliza's robot not just enriching our lives, but taking them over. Unfortunately, the entertaining and engaging build-up somehow takes a downward turn in the second act. Dialogue is allowed to go on so long that it smacks of speech making and the intriguing sci-fi aspects of the concept are allowed to fizzle into a rather hum-drum ending.
Unlike so many theater companies that rely on tried and tested plays, Playwrights Horizons continues its mission as a home for new plays by living playwrights. I just wish, the talented Madeline George had been persuaded to trim and fine tune her inventive play before declaring it as "finished" as Eliza's robot.