A woman in Victorian England wakes up in the morning with strange marks on her hands. Another interviews one of Alexander Graham Bell’s assistants about the first telephone call. A third, who is an expert at creating A.I. code, falls in lust with an I.T. helper. What unites them in Madeleine George’s play feels as random as the results of a Google search.
The playwright has chosen the name Watson as the organizing principle behind The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. Watson appears in a variety of guises, in different places and time periods, all performed by the same actor Brady Morales Woolery. In the opening scene, he’s a supercomputer made flesh. He appears to be at home with his programmer, a woman named Eliza (Sarah Mitchell). Despite the presence of these multiple Watsons, she’s the central character they all respond to or react against.
The arc of her story is reminiscent of the one Jill Clayburgh’s character Erica undergoes in the 1978 film An Unmarried Woman — with one significant difference. The pursuit of love, or its absence, runs secondary to Eliza’s career and the ongoing intellectual challenges it presents to her. The only time she looks like a woman in love is when she’s figuring out what can improve her A.I. Watson. Mitchell’s Eliza is appealing and liberated, a modern day Rhoda who has watched and internalized every episode of Sex and the City.
She’s recently divorced her ex-husband Merrick (Mick Mize), and refusing to return his frustrated phone calls. It’s easy to see why. Mize puffs him up into a boorish bureaucrat. When his computer breaks down, he contacts the “Dweeb Team” and they send out Watson, a genial technician who feels a real sense of purpose when fixing his customers’ computers. As Merrick spontaneously hatches a plan for Watson to stalk his ex-wife, the dweeb disappears underneath the desk with his posterior to the audience.
From that position, it was difficult to see the actor and to hear him speak his lines. Both actors could have simply been directed to face the audience. This unfortunate approach to blocking on stage didn’t recur again but it did deflate this pivotal scene, the one that launches the plot. Merrick hires Watson as an impromptu private detective to find out if Eliza has a lover. But Watson is as good-natured as he is inept and the plan immediately backfires.
Eliza spots Watson and, after some dissembling, he admits that Merrick enlisted him on this fool’s errand. Something about his fumbling or his honesty turns her on. She invites him back to her place where they begin a torrid romance. It’s at this point that the third and fourth Watsons slip into the storyline. Whether you find them additive or elucidating of the three present-day protagonists will depend on your tolerance for metaphor. George enfolds, enwraps and encases The Watson Intelligence in them.
The Sherlock Holmes Watson falls in love with the Victorian and her irritated, red hands. When he finds out the cause for them, his discovery is meant to reflect back on Merrick while at the same time providing an explanation for the failed marriage. This might well have been solved in any number of ways in the present: in Eliza’s monologues with her A.I. robot, or in dialogue with Watson or Merrick. But by the time the fourth Watson shows up to explain his relationship with Graham Bell, the time-travelling parallels lose their resonance and become inexact.
The backdrop on the stage is a beautifully lit motherboard, sized like the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It, too, Represents something Meaningful. But this over-reliance on metaphor, to stand in the place of characters interacting and speaking directly to each other, verges on parody. You can picture a sketch comedy show adding a fifth, sixth and seventh Watson until the device is entirely exhausted of meaning.
Eliza is more comfortable talking with a computer than she is with tolerating human intimacy. That’s because she’s smarter than the men in her life. She fills in that lonely place with a sarcastic edge and an unapologetic appetite for sex. But she doesn’t allow her desire to outweigh her ambition. Mitchell’s performance expertly conveys the conflict between the love of self and wanting to be loved. In her hands, Eliza’s marital status is the least interesting thing about her.
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, through Sept. 10, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org/Online/watson