by Cory Conley · December 12, 2013
“Mr. Watson, come here--- I want to see you.”
Those words, according to Madeleine George’s charming and thoughtful new play at Playwrights Horizons, were spoken by Alexander Graham Bell on the fateful night in 1876 when he placed the world’s first-ever telephone call, to his assistant in a nearby room. Or maybe not. Fifty years later, that assistant, Thomas A. Watson, claimed that the words he’d heard over the telephone had been somewhat different. Instead of “I want to see you,” Watson recalled, Graham had said simply: “I want you.”
Being wanted, and being able to meet the wants of others, is a concern very much shared by the souls who populate The [Curious Case of the] Watson Intelligence, which weaves through history to chronicle the tale of four separate Watsons. Three of them are historical (or literary) figures--- Bell’s assistant, mentioned above; Sherlock Holmes’s trusty sidekick; and the IBM supercomputer that recently beat the grandmasters of trivia on “Jeopardy.” The fourth, Jerry Watson, is a mild-mannered IT repairman sprung from the playwright’s imagination. The play regularly jumps from era to era, story to story, over its sprawling two-and-a-half hours.
These Watsons share the stage with a nervous young woman named Eliza and a combustible man named Merrick, who show up in various incarnations throughout the stories. (There are three actors, one for each name.) In the modern day, Eliza is a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence who can’t stop sharing hours of intimate conversation with the supercomputer she helped build. Her ex-husband, Merrick, is running for city auditor on a platform of ending government waste, and when he hires Jerry Watson (a member of the IT “Dweeb Team”) to spy on Eliza, things quickly heat up. Meanwhile, back at 221B Baker Street a century earlier, Dr. Watson gets a call from a different (though equally troubled) Eliza, who has a peculiar condition on her arm and an equally peculiar husband named Merrick, who’s an industrial inventor of some sort. Finally, in the play’s remaining track, Bell’s loyal assistant Watson gives an interview to Eliza, a radio producer in the 1930’s.
You might not have followed all that, and it’s okay. George’s script is rather brave in its untidiness: the stories overlap, they progress at different paces, and they refuse to cohere in a neat thematic way. But it never feels inaccessible; in fact, the opposite is true. The dialogue and the action are clear and unpretentious, and without being able to guess what happens next, you’re often stuck to the edge of your seat.
Aspects of the production, though, are disappointingly ill-fitted to the script. Director Leigh Silverman brings an odd, frenetic quality to the evening’s many transitions, employing an automated curtain and unnecessarily drawn-out scenic changes to distinguish between the stories. It’s the sort of thing that happens too often on Broadway, where audiences are seldom trusted to use their imaginations. But in a venue like Playwrights Horizons, a play as sprawling as Watson could’ve benefited from a simpler, tighter design.
A few directorial puzzlements can’t mask a virtuosic performance from John Ellison Conlee, as Watson, and solid ones from Amanda Quaid as Eliza and David Costabile as Merrick. Plowing through a range of centuries, continents, and accents is never easy, especially in the blink of an eye, and all three are equal to the task.
The play’s many ideas could spark hours of conversation, but the ones that resonated most with me came from an astonishing monologue late in act two, delivered by Bell’s Watson. When asked if it was humiliating to be a mere sidekick to the great inventor, Watson replies, “I would not describe it as humiliating, no. The ability to contribute selflessly to an endeavor larger than oneself is, to me, a precious gift.” That’s the curse (and blessing) of being a “Watson,” as even many of the talented among us turn out to be: not extraordinary in ourselves, but when we’re fully able to connect with each other, something very close to it.