Like most of the recent plays I have seen at Playwrights Horizons, Madeleine George's THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE falls in the "interesting but flawed" category. Her model seems to be Tom Stoppard's historical fantasias (like ARCADIA and TRAVESTIES) that blend different historical eras, but not all of George's historical eras really blend well. While Stoppard can write brilliantly witty long speeches that are fascinating, George writes long speeches that are just long. She doesn't have Stoppard's wit or his facility with language. Moreover, like the rants of garrulous drunks, the harangues tend to go off in tangents rather than stay on topic. Every time one of her characters goes into rant mode, and they often do, one feels the speeches are twice as long as they need to be. But, yes, there is an interesting play in there trying to get out.
Through its use of three actors playing a variety of characters with the same names: Eliza (Amanda Quaid), Watson (John Ellison Conlee) and Merrick (David Constabile), George dramatizes our need for and fear of complicated human connection and emotions, particularly the messy complex of feelings we call love. The key phrase is the first sentence ever uttered on a telephone, "Come here, Watson, I need you" (or was it "Come here, Watson, I need to see you"?). Watson was the devoted servant, willing to sacrifice his needs to those of the famous inventor. Watson is also the devoted friend, assistant and chronicler of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Attempting to be a sleuth without Holmes, Watson is totally inept. In our own era, Watson is the computer that became a contestant on JEOPARDY, but can such a computer ever replace a human being?
The central character is not Watson but Eliza, a brilliant expert on artificial intelligence, who wants to develop a computer that can really meet a person's emotional needs -- that can replace the need for human companionship. Eliza has just cut off all relations with her husband. She won't answer his phone calls or emails. When we first see her, she is trying to explain her feelings to Watson, the computer. Of course, her emotions don't compute. He can't help. When her angry, jealous husband asks a computer repairman named Watson to spy on Eliza, things really go awry. Yes, one might ask why he doesn't hire a detective, but THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE is filled with such lapses in logic that pull one away from involvement in the action. Are they examples of the alienation effect or just sloppy playwriting? At any rate, this Watson, like Holmes's friend, is a terrible sleuth. Eliza confronts him and they end up falling in love. Eliza is immediately attracted to him when he echoes her computer, "I'm just trying to give you what you need." Unfortunately, the overpowering feelings of love terrify Eliza. Meanwhile, back in Victorian England, Holmes's Watson follows a man who is trying to create a mechanical, totally compliant simulacrum of his wife, Eliza, that will only serve his will. See, neither men nor women can deal with a real relationship with another person.
The scenes with Eliza and her mechanical and human Watsons are well written and absorbing. The Victorian and contemporary husbands are the most serious problem. Poor David Constabile has been given these long winded speeches that are merely tiresome. Because Merrick is more a mouthpiece than a character, the final scene between him and Eliza isn't as conclusive as it should be.
Leigh Silverman's production moves the play along, though THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE, like so many Playwrights Horizons offerings, would be better if it were shorter. The split-second costume changes are virtuosic. Amanda Quaid is wonderful as Eliza. Conlee, who at times bears an uncanny resemblance to the British character actor Jim Broadbent, is charming. Poor David Constabile does what he can with the turgid prose he has been given.
Not a great play, but one that has enjoyable, absorbing moments.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE. Playwrights Horizons, December 26, 2013.