Fittingly, Madeleine George’s The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence—a play that features the moment of the invention of the telephone as a kind of refrain, as well as other inventions ranging from the Victorian-era Merrick Greaseless Piston to triumphs in modern computer science—works like a vast, intricately constructed, precision-engineered piece of machinery, elegant and eerily beautiful, if sometimes a little chilly in its precision.
It’s a very fine piece of craft (part of what’s been thus far a terrific season for complex, brainy writing at Playwrights Horizons), elegantly directed by Leigh Silverman, and rooted in an elaborate riff on three science-related historical figures who share the name Watson: Thomas Watson, amanuensis to Alexander Graham Bell, and recipient of the first message ever delivered telephonically; Dr. John Watson, sidekick to famous fictional rationalist Sherlock Holmes; and IBM’s supercomputer Watson, which successfully defeated, in 2011, the most successful human Jeopardy champions from the program’s history.
The play is set in the week that IBM’s Watson competes, and in that present-day story, it adds two more iterations of Watson: a humanoid AI companion designed by Eliza Merrick, a former IBM scientist now running a startup, and Josh Watson, an IT repairman who becomes a sort of hapless amateur private investigator and eventually Eliza’s boyfriend—as well as being an uncanny mirror of his nonhuman counterpart (the opposite of an avatar, as the robot version comes to seem the original, and the human the copy). The three overlapping stories mirror and mesh with one another, shuttling snippets of dialogue, talismanic objects, and character traits—as well as actors, all of whom appear in all three narrative strands as their own analogous characters—from one to the other.
To go with the triangle of stories, we also have a love triangle, played out in the piece’s main, modern-day story among Eliza (whose attachment to her created Watson is her strongest relationship), Josh, and Eliza’s ex-husband, Frank, a libertarian candidate for local office and a first-rate blowhard; in setting Josh to stalk Eliza (whom he believes to be plotting against him), he introduces them. And, in a warped mirror, a Victorian version appears among Dr. Watson, a would-be client of Sherlock Holmes’s (Eliza), and her inventor husband, whose controlling tendencies lead to even creepier behavior than the modern Frank’s. (An Eliza figure is put into juxtaposition, in the third thread, with Bell’s Watson as a radio producer, but that feels a bit like symmetry for its own sake.)
Both Franks are petty tyrants, with urges for control over others that quickly turn sinister; both Elizas are distant, withholding emotionally and then frustrated by their inability to connect. And, at different points, both a Frank and an Eliza turn to simulacra, to the possibility of creating one’s ideal partner—a decision that seems completely rational until reflected in someone else’s eyes.
While the array of characters played by each actor share similar traits, I found each actor strikingly more effective in one of their three roles. For Amanda Quaid, who seemed a little constrained in Victorian propriety, the modern Eliza was the more successful. But David Costabile seemed to thrive in that more formal, measured diction; his Frank Merrick, Victorian inventor, was deeply unsettling where his modern one sometimes seemed merely petulant. And John Ellison Conlee was most engaging as the AI Watson, walking the uncanny line between man and machine with sly humor and polished reserve.
Even while the play’s marvelous construction is admirable, at times the complexity of its architecture seemed to interrupt the integrity and emotional arc of each of the individual stories. There’s something curiously unemotional about the whole thing; even as it’s about the dysfunction and failure of deeply passionate human relationships (in an interview, George calls it a “breakup play”), it sometimes seems too focused on letting its characters analyze the mechanics of their own relationships rather than live them.
It’s of course true that these are people who have stronger relationships with machines than with other humans, people whose default mode is sometimes to treat others like machines; those analytical tendencies are baked into the play, but that can feel a little distancing. The piece ultimately appeals more to the brain than the heart—but, given its themes, that’s as much a feature as a bug.