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The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
Amanda Quaid and John Ellison Conlee
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Memo to Alex Trebek: Jeopardy! is not the beginning or the end of wisdom. The sum total of human experience, and especially what it means to love, can't be quantified by any technical gizmo, no matter how advanced. So Madeleine George's new play saying this at Playwrights Horizons, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, is every bit as insightful and correct as it is banal and predictable.

It is, however, moored to a intriguing truth — or, to be more correct, three of them (or, well, two and a more-than-reasonable facsimile). The first starts with that famous game show, which in 2011 hosted a play-off between the IBM supercomputer Watson and former Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, where the electronic contestant cleaned its human rivals' clocks. The second is the first voice communication by wire, courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell calling for his trusted assistant. Lastly, there's the matter of the intrepid doctor assistant of one Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective.

George cagily links the three Watsons across time and space as she investigates the question of communication and how much we're ever really able to do it. The players are the same in all three: Watson himself (John Ellison Conlee), possessor of knowledge; Merrick (David Costabile), who yearns to harness it; and Eliza (Amanda Quaid), Merrick's wife, the everywoman who's forever caught somewhere in the middle.

Only the situations adjust themselves as George's script and Leigh Silverman's direction oscillate between the near and distant past. In the here and now, Merrick hires roving computer tech Watson to keep an eye on his wife, who in her work with "emotionally intelligent robotics" and artificial intelligence is absorbed with training and utilizing a program that's close kin to IBM's creation; in the early 1930s, radio interlocutor Eliza tries to interview Bell's Watson on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the world's most famous voice communication; and, in later Victorian London, the good doctor meets a woman in search of Holmes's services who wonders if her husband has installed her at the intersection of humanity and technology.

The tangling of these aspects of the plot is deliciously complex, with George efficiently weaving a single tale no matter how many times she leaps across the decades, and the characters interacting and growing consistently even though there are ostensibly nine of them. And though Louisa Thompson's set is spare almost to a fault, using a brick-wall centerpiece, a shower curtain–like setup for changing the scene, and little else to differentiate the eras, Silverman's staging is smart and always keeps your position in the timeline firm and clear.

Unfortunately, this isn't enough to ward off the inherent dryness in what George is doing. For all the invention she displays in telling it, the story itself is flat and unremarkable: Fascinating though it may be to see how the silicon, flesh-and-blood, and fictional Watsons differ from each other, for example, his love affair with Eliza and ongoing tension with Merrick are wireframe schematics that never resolve into exciting drama. And, living up to her name, Eliza seems like more of an example of natural-language processing, reacting mechanically to her surroundings, than she does a woman with rich wants and needs we can (and should) intimately care about.

The performances, which all run quite cool, don't help. The closest to generating recognizable sympathy is Conlee, who constructs a compelling arc from a yet-to-be-populated processing algorithm to a man who can no longer serve only as vessel for others' unfocused desires, even if he does so without fully identifying who and why each one is. But Quaid and Costabile are detached from their roles throughout, investigating them as if through a telescope but transforming them into components that complete the system Conlee and George are apparently proposing.

It's telling that their best scene — and, for that matter, the play's — is the final one, in which Merrick and Eliza sit on a couch, stripped of all pretense and printed-circuit-board artifice, and must, for the first time, face each other as people. They're not equipped for the task, of course, so their initial engagements are tentative, restrained, even a bit terrified. But as they continue speaking, the power of conversation, and ultimately of the simple connection they've spent so long avoiding, propels them to a deeper understanding of each other, themselves, and the world around them.

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence would definitely benefit from this being the culmination of a series of more specific and even emotional examinations of the issues raised throughout, rather than something that's been said countless times before in ways more vivid than this. But if it's hardly a new idea, it's hard to ignore or disapprove of entirely — it rings with truth just the same, and will continue to do so as long as we find new ways to erect new barriers between ourselves and those we care about. Which is to say, one suspects, forever.


The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
Through December 29
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets and performance schedule at playwrightshorizons.org