Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
George places two plots at center stage, alternating judiciously between them. One involves Dr. John Watson, the physician and loyal assistant to Sherlock Holmes who is drawn into a case, in Sherlock's absence, involving a woman named Eliza unstrung by unexplained bruises on her arms, missing undergarments, and the loss of her husband Merrick's affection. Watson is moved by Eliza's plight and follows Merrick, an inventor looking for a backer to fund his "greaseless piston," a device that will revolutionize machinery and weaponry alike, discovering Merrick to be as coldly rational as Eliza is emotional.
In the second plot a computer designer, another Eliza, is on the brink of perfecting a device that can provide both technical assistance and emotional support, matching the user's emotional tone as well as responding to their questions. Her prototype, named Watson, responds to her in Siri-like tones, cheerily empathetic at all times. Eliza is plagued by calls from her ex-husband Merrick, a blowhard running for public office who is unable to let go of their relationship. Enraged by his unanswered calls to Eliza, Merrick impulsively hires his trustworthy computer repair guy to tail his ex and report back on what she is up to. The computer guy, named Josh Watson, does follow Eliza, but not very discretely. Josh and Eliza end up having an intense connection that leaves her torn between the two Watsons in her life.
Between these two major storylines, playwright George weaves Thomas A. Watson, the assistant of Alexander Graham Bell to whom the line, "Watson, come here. I want to see you," was spoken, in 1876, marking the invention of the telephone. It is 1931 and an aged Watson is being interviewed by a radio host named Eliza about the momentous events of 1876. Watson insists that history got those first words spoken by telephone wrong, that what Bell said was "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you." The difference in Bell's meaning and what the world believes has haunted him ever since. There is one more Watson, even more briefly, the computer that outwitted the reigning (human) all-time champion on the TV game show "Jeopardy!" in 2011.
All of the characters are played by just three actors, necessitating frequent fast costume changes, as well as set changes between scenes. These occur as quickly and smoothly as one could hope for, though even at best, the play's structure has built in some lag time that breaks the flow from one storyline to the next. That said, the three actors do terrific work. As all of the Watsons, H. Adam Harris gives a tour-de-force performance. He is affable as Watson the computer repair geek, who discovers unexpected love of enormous depth; sublimely chirpy as the voice of the prototype Watson, gradually developing an edge over time that is clearly not written into the computer's program; a genteel, upstanding and courageous sleuth Dr. Watson; and a bitter John A. Watson, anguished by the lost truth of his great work with Mr. Bell. I have seen Harris in numerous roles on many Twin City stages, but never center stage, delivering such variety and complexity in the course of a single play.
Kathryn Fumie is excellent as the three Elizas, especially during the panic attacks felt by the computer genius who cannot find a way to live through both her intellect and her passions, as when she tearfully tells Josh Watson "I want to be with you all the time, and I have a really hard time being with you". As the two Merricks, Adam Whisner creates depictions of men caught up in the machinations of their minds, distancing them from real-life connections.
Leah Cooper directs Watson Intelligence with a balanced hand that does not tip toward favoring one side or the other in its ongoing battle between the heart and the mind. Together with a talented creative teamscenery by Lance Brockman, costumes by Kathy Kohl, sound by Katherine Horowitz and lighting by Michael P. Kittelshe maintains focus as the play shifts backward and forward in time and place. Kohl's costumes in particular very drolly bridge the gulfs between times.
The ingenious multiple plots bounce off one another in the predicaments encountered and the issues raised, as well as the character's names. Though none of the plots or characters are deeply enough developed to draw our attachment, the play is constantly engaging, and the cumulative sum of the parts is, almost mysteriously, a powerful whole. The final scene, in particular, delivers an unexpected pay-off. The end leaves the audience intellectually stimulated and emotionally movednot resolving the stand-off between those two mental faculties, but offering an abundance of food for further thought.
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence continues on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre through April 30, 2017. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $50.00 - 70.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance (cash only). For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org
Playwright: Madeleine George; Director: Leah Cooper; Set Design: Lance Brockman; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Katherine Horowitz; Properties: Sadie Ward; Stage Manager: Amanda K. Bowman; Assistant Stage Managers: Samantha Diekman and Rachel Lantow.
Cast: Kathryn Fumie (Eliza), H. Adam Harris (Watson), Adam Whisner (Merrick).