Review: THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE Explores Technological Dependency
The lobby of Playwrights Horizons currently sports a contraption that challenges visitors to compete against a computer in friendly rounds of Jeopardy!. I spent about 15 minutes there before an evening's performance of Madeleine George's The (Curious Case Of The) Watson Intelligence, watching an obviously very knowledgeable man chime in immediately with correct answers, only to continually be told that the computer also came in with the correct response, but in the most miniscule dot of time before him.
The gathered crowd seemed rather frustrated. The game looked rigged, but most likely the demonstration just proved the machine to be a useless spec of time faster.
It was an IBM computer such as this, named Watson (after the company's founder, Thomas J. Watson), that defeated the two winningest champions in Jeopardy! history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Coincidently, that surname also applies to the fictional Sherlock Holmes' trusty friend and assistant, Dr. John H. Watson, and the real life assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas A. Watson.
And those coincidences are what George tries tying together in a rather muddy attempt to say something about the human race's ability to create devises that not only assist us, but possess sophistication that causes us to become dependent upon them.
Jumping back and forth through time John Ellison Conlee does an amiable job playing the fictionAl Watson, the human Watson and an Artificial Intelligence devise comparable to IBM's Watson. That last feat is performed by having him sit unemotionally on a chair, reacting as best he can to the voice of his developer, Eliza (Amanda Quaid), who, by constant conversation, is teaching him to respond to her as a perfect companion.
Conlee also plays a fourth Watson, a tech guy and self-described dweeb who gets hired by Eliza's ex, a hot-headed political bully named Merrick (David Costabile), to spy on her and pick up some dirt. Merrick is running for office and is convinced that Eliza is using her technological skills to sabotage his campaign.
A romantic relationship develops between Eliza and the dweeb, but is threatened when she becomes more and more dependent on her computerized device as it becomes capable of selflessly fulfilling her every emotional need.
Meanwhile, in the fictional 19th Century, Quaid plays an Eliza who receives assistance from Dr. Watson in investigating her husband Merrick's (yes, Costabile) violent mood swings.
Cut to the 20th Century, where radio host Eliza is interviewing John Watson about the invention of the telephone, with a special emphasis on the often-misquoted first words received via wire and what they say about Bell's dependency on him.
Director Leigh Silverman, who seems to specialize in off-beat projects such as this, does her usual excellent job of letting the quirkiness lightly breeze by, but George's text, though mostly engaging and thoughtful during its 21st Century scenes, tends to get heavy-handed and drawn out.
Instead of connecting her stories into a satisfying theme, the play comes off as little more than a curiosity.