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December 24, 2013

REVIEW The [curious case of the] Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George, directed by Leigh Silverman, Playwrights Horizons

Reference to Sherlock Holmes, computers, time travel and mysterious goings-on -- it all sounds wild and wacky, but it’s pretentious and not clever. 

The play weaves in and out about several Watsons, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson, who, in a nearby room, received Bell’s first telephone call, IBM’s natural-language-processing supercomputer, Watson (named after the founder of IBM),  and the “real” contemporary man in the play, a computer repairer Watson who’s just a nice guy.

In the first scene, the best part of the play, Eliza (Amanda Quaid), a computer genius, converses with her creation, Watson, an outstanding computer language processor.  Like the inventor Spalanzani who falls in love with the wind-up doll he creates in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, Eliza pretty much falls in love with her mechanical creation -- how not, since she made him the way she wanted him?

So that ... when she encounters a real, ordinary guy named Watson, who (played by the same actor) looks just like her pet computer and who says all the right things (programmed computer empathy and Elton John all in one), she falls fast in love with him too.  It’s a love triangle since this “real” Watson was sent by Eliza’s estranged husband to spy on her.   

Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson seeks to rescue a woman from a super-over-possessive and controlling husband, while Alexander Graham Bell’s Watson is involved in a parallel combination rescue operation/love triangle.  All Watsons are played by John Ellison Conlee who’s amusing as a friendly computer programmed with empathetic responses but totally miscast as a lover-- worse, multiple lovers.  The contemporary love scenes between Eliza, played with charm by Quaid, and Watson the computer fix-it man are as incongruous as Titania’s drugged passion for Bottom with his donkey head in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but here just clumsy, not magical.   

David Costabile plays Merrick, the self-involved, over-technical but underneath it all loving husband in the triangles:  his skill as an actor is apparent as he tries to make several pseudo-intellectual soliloquies he's required to deliver interesting but it’s a thankless task.      

The Watson Intelligence is like Charles Ludlum’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, seen recently in a wonderful production in Sag Harbor -- but without the wit, variety, or imaginative zaniness, or Irma Vep's tour de force wonderously instant changes of costume and character; here these are easy and transparent, and sloppily carried out.  After the initial “conversation” between Eliza and her computer, there’s little here to smile about, and much to yawn over.

The [curious case of the] Watson Intelligence plays at Playwrights Horizons on Theater Row, West 42nd Street in Manhattan, through December 29, 2013.  For information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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I agree with you that this was a very boring play. However, to my way of thinking, it was a sinister play for it advocated that people should be happy in playing a supporting role – not unlike the handmaidens of Margaret Atwood’s novel. More surprising the play was written by a woman when it is really a put down for women. Some of the philosophy is almost from Nietzsche but without the power. One wonders how so much resource was spent for this? Are there better uses for the limited money for the arts?

Hi Yvonne,

I would like to send you a press release & info on Tony n' Tina's Wedding performance that is coming back to Times Square this winter! Please let me know what email address to send to.

Thank you!

While I agree "The (curious case of) The Watson Intelligence" was flawed, I think it had far more to offer than this conversation has so far allowed. To me the point is not that "people should be happy in playing a supporting role"--it's not prescriptive in that way. There are two ongoing and intersecting explorations. One is of what we create when we try to create the "perfect" other; the second is the need to learn to value the kind of "genius" that allows one person to back another without seeking the spotlight. I always enjoy a role reversal of the Pygmalion myth--what does a woman create when she creates the "perfect" man? And I enjoyed this idea of "The Watson Intelligence"--not the intelligence GIVEN TO a Watson to make "him" perfect, but the native intelligence that knows how to reflect and shape the more commonly acknowledged "genius." Of course the playwright was trying to unhook the concept from the usual gender roles--a complex task, not fully achieved. I was entertained by all the different pairings, however, and only disappointed by the ending, which seemed far too simplistic for the questions raised. After complicating the issue of HOW to connect--do we enjoy the "perfect" other we create? can we afford to acknowledge the intelligence that feeds and shapes our own without feeling it is controlling us?--the ending I saw (in previews; don't know if it survived the run) seemed to flatten everything into an uncomplicated "Only connect."

... the reversal of the Pygmalion myth ... I'm trying to think of others earlier than this one ... what might they be ... ?

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