Switching among three different periods in a time span of over 100 years, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence directed by Leigh Silverman is a clever exposé of machine intelligence’s great potential and great inadequacy. Playwright Madeleine George examines our global interconnectedness and complete dependence upon machines through the lens of our human need for intimacy and love, and our inability to recognize love or be satisfied with it when it arrives.
George tweaks our sensibilities and keeps us engaged by shifting plots and settings back and forth from the present to Victorian England. She also includes, as a thematic bridging device, a scene between Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Watson in their first voice exchange over a phone wire (1876, USA). The playwright seamlessly weaves the settings and their plots together with logical, rational “Watson” intelligence as the thread. She uses “Watson” as the character metaphor alluding to humankind’s brilliant talent for engaging what he/she hopes is scientific progress in conquering the material world. The characters (Merrick, Eliza, Watson) remain the same (names, functions, roles) despite the change in settings. In two of the three plots about marital relationships on the downhill slide, the character exchanges and intentions show a striking similarity.
In the present, Eliza (an excellent Amanda Quaid) is going through a painful separation and divorce from her husband Merrick from whom she remains isolated and apart. We are introduced to Eliza in the presence of a computer, “Watson,” the latest manifestation of A.I. (played with a humorous, flat affect by John Ellison Conlee). A genius, Eliza has brilliantly programmed “Watson” to help her in a new business venture. She also uses “him” to distract her from her private troubles in ironic and funny Q & A sessions.
Her husband Merrick (a very funny David Costabile) has hired someone from the Dweeb squad to fix his own malfunctioning computer system. After speaking at length to the Dweeb named “Watson,” (Conlee), Merrick hires him to spy on Eliza.
Eliza and Watson, who bungles his spying, strike up a conversation, are attracted to one another and date. Watson extracts himself from his spying contract and he and Eliza form an intimate, powerful and loving relationship which is “perfect.” Merrick remains in hell over his destroyed relationship with Eliza. He is convinced she is having an affair with someone, not realizing he had brought the someone right to her door.
Meanwhile, in Victorian England, Eliza (Quaid), wife of Merrick (Costabile), a paranoid and isolated inventor, seeks out Sherlock Holmes to solve a mystery about her husband. Holmes is not there, so Dr. “Watson” (Conlee) takes on the case and becomes entangled with Eliza helping her out by spying on Merrick. He finds out he and Merrick belong to the same club, and goes to Merrick’s lecture introducing himself as someone else. He solves one of the mysteries related to Eliza and discovers how Merrick feels about his wife, perhaps even intending to do away with her. Watson attempts to intervene.
Both plots reveal the misery of the spouses and their unfortunate marriage arrangements, with “Watson” to the rescue. The playwright depicts Merrick, Eliza and Watson (A.I. Watson excluded) in both time periods as individuals groping through their frail inadequacies and sticky emotional messes. She holds their emotional flux, flotsam and jetsam in juxtaposition with the “simple,” clear logic of A.I. Watson.
Eliza would have an unrestrained and perfect relationship with computer Watson if she could; instead, she is stuck with asking it questions about her soured life with Merrick and love relationship with Dweeb Watson. The imperfect men pale next to the perfect A.I. Watson. The irony is that Eliza is also imperfect, so ultimately, A.I. Watson will never be adequate for her either because of her own blithering sensibility and psychological/emotional hangups.
Meanwhile, in Victorian England, Dr. Watson has fallen for Eliza, but Merrick will not give up his wife, though he finds little happiness with her. In each setting and with the topsy-turvy plot reversals, the results are both hysterical and ironic. The humans are emotional basket cases; the relationships are unsettled failures and the resolution by the conclusion becomes an interesting conundrum and philosophical proposition.
The playwright has led us to conclusions that she would like us to understand, and we follow where led. As a result of the “Watson intelligence,” we are forced to acknowledge that human rationality and scientific progress exemplified by Artificial Intelligence has moved with lightspeed into the future. On the other hand, humans with all their “mortal instruments” in emotional and psychological tatters have not evolved past the quaint Dark Ages. War, murder and violence continue as do depression, anxiety, loneliness and self-imposed alienation. There is no perfect solid state for organic feeling.
George reveals the problems inherent when humans believe that the rational, logical, empirical world trumps all else in human experience. This belief actually pushes us further into alienation, loneliness and extreme neediness. We’ve come so far and have traveled nowhere. Scientific, progress, exploration and advances into A.I. have done nothing to help modify the human heart.
The cast is versatile, humorous and excellent, kept on target with fine direction by Leigh Silverman. The play runs through December 29 at Playwrights Horizons.