Fort Worth — Fine, I’ll admit it. All I knew about playwright Madeleine George before the other night is what I’d read in Stage West’s program notes for The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence.
But if this is what she does, I’m in. Bring me more.
It’s easy to like this quirky and clever play about characters human and non, modern and Victorian—many of them named Watson—with a plot that curls around and through itself like a tangle of computer cords. Don’t try to guess where each line will lead; you’ll make yourself dizzy. Directed with concentration and verve by Emily Scott Banks, this is an often comic, sometimes intense story that starts in technology, but lands, with a rather satisfying thump, in the human heart.
George’s play (a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist) muses on our obsession with “devices”—from smartphones on up—and explores an essential question: Are these gleaming miniature machines connecting us, or creating an illusion of connection that keeps us distracted and apart? How, she wonders, can a computer be a “companion”? Could a creature of artificial intelligence ever go beyond quasi-human responses (“Oops, it looks like I goofed with that one. Could you give me a nudge in the right direction?”) to become the Real Thing?
And what kind of love are we looking for anyway—the perfect match, eHarmonized love where predictive algorithms mean he/she (or it!) seems to know everything about us already…or the struggling “hard work” love where we start with a who-knows-why attraction, and then find ourselves groping in the dark toward that other person—who is likely to be as clueless and imperfect as we? Feeling fully known is, as one of the play’s characters says, “irresistibly sexy.” But what, if anything, are we missing?
“Watson, come here—I want you!” George loves to play with language, clearly, but what, exactly, do those words come to mean? Actor Garret Storms plays all the Watsons of the story: a work-in-progress humanoid “companion” related to the supercomputer from Jeopardy; computer geek Joshua, who makes office calls to rescue non-tekkies from themselves; the (believing) Thomas who answers Alexander Graham Bell’s shout over the early telephone; and Dr. John, Sherlock’s mystery-solving sidekick.
Each of the Watsons connects to the lives of a man named Merrick (Aaron Roberts, playing both a modern-day Merrick and what—we presume—is a 19th century British inventor/ancestor) and his estranged wife in both time periods, Eliza (Alison Pistorious).
This cast of three moves with bright energy through the shifts of character, time and tone, and the staging is terrific. Between the many short scenes of the main action, the trio move around the space—changing details, moving props on and off—all the while mysteriously in character, locking eyes as their paths cross, stiffening in anger or confusion. There isn’t a moment wasted, and though we can’t at first decode this intensity of emotion, those entre-acte moments keep us alert and wondering.
Roberts does a finely calibrated job both with his roles: frustrated, decent-guy modern politician Merrick, whose unraveling marriage is mostly his doing; and his inventive ancestor, whose desire for the perfect wife leads into creepier corners. Pistorious is engaging and sexy as both the Mrs. Merricks: the modern computer whiz developing an ever-more-human robot, and the Victorian wife who suspects her husband’s intentions. If there’s ever a moment when Pistorious isn’t completely inhabiting her square of stage space, I have yet to see it.
And it’s a showcase for the versatile Storms, whose quartet of Watsons are vividly drawn and even rather endearing. The robot Watson’s small, catlike smile of satisfaction (he likes to be helpful) and squared-off body language (feet primly together) are amusing, as are the fussy precision of Bell’s Watson and the soldierly determination of Sherlock’s doctor W. And as the small-time computer repairman who proves to be much more, we’re entirely taken (and a bit confused) by his blend of boyish, heart-on-sleeve emotion, and his disquieting ability to know what Eliza wants…and not just in bed.
Jim Covault’s set design gets us going before the show even starts. We enter to find a white circle of floor backed by a giant circuit board/computer screen that spans the stage, and it’s already “loading” the Watson project as we come in. This and other inventive projections were designed by Nate Davis. Michael Robinson’s mix of modern and period costuming is just right, and Rich Frolich on sound and Michael O’Brien on lights help parse and punctuate the complex through-line of the action.
There are plenty of working playwrights these days, and it takes less and less time for their scripts to reach us here in North Texas. (Some of them start here, in fact!) But in the past few seasons, Stage West, along with Circle Theatre and Amphibian Stage Productions, has shown a particular knack for snapping up some of the best new plays—and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence gives this long-running company another memorable regional premiere.