Drama for dweebs: 'Watson Intelligence' is a really smart play
Madeleine George's terrific 2014 play The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence is the latest in a line of shows with real appeal for tech geeks, scientists, computer engineers, mathematicians and any civilians who like their dramas not to be about "why Daddy never told me he loved me," or "how I finally learned to own my narrative," but, say, "the future of our society and how we are just a few years away from living side-by-side with robots who can do almost anything except review the theater."
I was sucked in to this unusual but exceptionally smart show, which ranges back to the Victorian world of Holmes and Watson, but mostly focuses on Eliza and her hapless ex-husband Merrick (Joe Dempsey), a kind of old-school politico running for the office of city auditor. Valada-Viars makes a genuinely empathetic central character with intelligence and poise.
Like Spike Jonze's movie "Her," "Watson Intelligence" is really probing our insecurity about the inevitable and imminent encroachment of our sponge-like digitized assistants into the world of emotional intelligence and into our bedrooms.
★★★★ If Watson’s second, who comes first? That’s the question of Madeleine George’s intensely brainy dramedy.
Who’s the Watson in the title of this largely comic think piece on technology and its relationship to our relationships? Depends which scene you’re in. There’s the one who assisted Alexander Graham Bell, immortalized in the famous (and probably misremembered) first telephone transmission; there’s the sidekick to that master detective Sherlock Holmes; there’s the IBM supercomputer that famously competed on Jeopardy! and is suddenly back in the public consciousness, rubbing elbows with Bob Dylan in TV commercials; and there’s the computer technician turned private investigator invented by playwright Madeleine George.
The script (which George has heavily revised for Theater Wit’s Chicago premiere) contains so many a-ha moments you almost want to tell it to stop trying so hard. But Jeremy Wechsler’s staging, featuring an impressive set design by Joe Schermoly, sports such honest acting from Valada-Viars, Dempsey and Foust that you forgive any excesses. Emotional intelligence, indeed.
The show certainly has a lot to say about how much we actually want from humans and machines and in what proportions. It also explores the true—and in our time of arrogant disrupters, habitually ignored—nature of innovation. Before she's done, playwright George spins out time-hopping story lines involving two other Watsons: John H., the famous friend, collaborator, and amanuensis to Sherlock Holmes, and Thomas A., who assisted Alexander Graham Bell in creating the telephone and received the first over-the-wire voice transmission. Both men (or, rather, the character and the man) were distinguished by their ability to make themselves preternaturally useful to another. Indeed the "intelligence" of the title seems to be a genius for self-abnegating support.
No one knows more about communal creativity than theater makers, and this production is a great example. With the help of Joe Schermoly's clever and supremely efficient set, director Wechsler renders the intellectual and narrative complexities of the script not just clear but vivid and lots of fun. And his casting is perfect at a Platonic level. Joe Foust makes a tour de force of playing every Watson in sight, including the beta version of Eliza's device. Each of them is simultaneously ludicrous and absorbing. Similarly, Joe Dempsey enlivens various incarnations of Frank Merrick, a selfish, paranoid businessman who shows up in multiple eras as if to work out his nasty karma. Kristina Valada-Viars's Eliza, finally, is tough, anguished, sexual, believably astute.
February, 2011. A programmer perfects her new AI as IBM's Watson wins its Jeopardy tournament.
March, 1891. Dr. Watson takes his first solo case without Sherlock Holmes at his side.
March, 1876. The first voice communication by wire.
March, 1931. Thomas A. Watson is interviewed at Bell Labs about the famous quote.
Madeleine George (author of 2013's hit Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England) premieres a brand new version of her stunning 2014 Pulitzer Award finalist: a time hopping comic meditation on technology, love and communication over the last 150 years. Directed by Jeremy Wechsler, and starring Chicago favorites Joe Dempsey, Joe Foust and Kristina Valada-Viars, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence is going to be a dizzying trip with four Watsons and eight million human hearts.