December 16, 2013 5:42 pm

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, Playwrights Horizons, New York – review

Madeleine George’s drama asks questions about interactions between humans and machines
Amanda Quaid and John Ellison Conlee in 'The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence'©Joan Marcus

Amanda Quaid and John Ellison Conlee in 'The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence'

Sex with a robot? If this original new off-Broadway play by Madeleine George does not explicitly illustrate such a coupling, it does force us to ask whether intimate interaction between humans and machines will bring about an increase in emotional connectivity – or just fill a void for humans afraid of being alone.

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence opens in 2011 with a young PhD called Eliza coaching a humanoid device in the basics of human interaction. A specialist in artificial intelligence, Eliza has parted ways with the team that developed Watson, the IBM natural-language-processing supercomputer that triumphed over human champions on Jeopardy!, the US quiz show.


IN Theatre & Dance

Eliza wants to develop her robotic device to help the weak to navigate social-welfare bureaucracies. Her estranged libertarian husband, Merrick, finds her project repulsively do-goodish. Yet he remains in thrall to her – obsessively so.

On a stage including little more than sofa, desk and bed, Eliza, portrayed with strong sense of frustration by Amanda Quaid, soon morphs into a character living in 1889. She has come to the Baker Street rooms of Sherlock Holmes to seek help against her husband, also Merrick, who is developing a kind of primitive machine-like companion. She meets not Holmes but Dr Watson, who takes up her cause.

He is not the last of the play’s Watsons. There is also Thomas A. Watson, assistant to inventor Alexander Graham Bell. On March 10 1876, this Watson was the recipient of Bell’s first telephone call. In 1931, the timeframe of the play’s third section, he delivers an extended thematic interview about the historic communication.

George is a highly intelligent writer, able to criss-cross time periods with ease, and her director, Leigh Silverman, stages the proceedings efficiently. The male actors – the highly likeable John Ellison Conlee as the Watsons and the amusingly aggrieved David Costabile as the Merricks – bring her scenarios to life. This is not, however, a Conan Doyle whodunnit providing the relief of a clear resolution. It is more an inventive fantasia on a theme: the perfection with which a machine can satisfy our needs versus the messier attempts of a human being to do the same.

The final scene is unsatisfying. That may be intentional – our stabs at connection may be fated to scant satisfaction – but this idea has already been securely sounded in the first act and is not engagingly developed in the second.

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