A Fistful of Watsons And a Whole Lot of Words: A Review of The Watson Effect
Article by Rebecca Romani
For Eliza Merrick, inventor extraordinaire, lover of all things AI (artificial intelligence), her AI experiment, Watson, is everything a lonely girl could want, mostly. For Alexander Bell, Watson is everything a harried inventor of the telephone could want, pretty much.
Madeleine George’s clever, thought provoking play, ‘The (curious case of the) Watson Effect,” currently on stage at Moxie Theatre, is a fun and wordy romp through parallel times of inventions that drastically changed the course of human communication.
For Eliza, her AI Watson is almost perfect- “I just want to give you what you need…” It just needs a little more training to figure out what that might be, unlike her slightly paranoid ex-husband, who is more interested in trying to find out what she is doing to destroy him by employing a spy, named… surprise – Watson. Not surprisingly, the living Watson turns out to have real feelings and thoughts, enough so that Eliza finds herself falling for yet another Watson.
Parallel to this story is that of Watson of Bell and Watson in the Victorian era, who lives but to serve the great inventor…more or less. Until he strikes out on his own, pretending to be…or is he, Watson pretending to be Sherlock Holmes, solving mysteries for clients like Victorian Eliza, sleuthing out devices until Bell utters that fateful phrase…”Come here, Watson. I need you….”
Or did he?
“The Watson Effect” is an interesting take on the effects of evermore complicated communication technology which never talks down to the audience. The patter is clear and the delivery almost uniformly natural with the possible exception of Eddie Yaroch, who is a bit overly theatrical, as the Merrick/Bells.
Jo Anne Glover who plays the various Elizas, makes her wordy and difficult part look like a breeze. Her natural voice pattern allows her to pull off the dense text and her ability to switch parts and registers is fascinating.
Equally fantastic is Justin Lang as the multiple Watsons (four). Lang shifts seamlessly from AI character to spy turned boyfriend to assistant to masquerading sleuth with astonishing ease. It’s a brilliant bit of casting and Lang imbues all four Watsons with enough distinction that one can keep track of them.
Deftly directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the play is a lot of fun and the dialogue is smart and on point. However, an obvious weakness isn’t so much the delivery as the sheer abundance of text. The words flow, gush, tumble, course out of the characters. Glover seems to barely stop for breath as she delivers flawlessly executed line after flawless line. One is stunned, awed even, by the almost uncanny ability to deliver so much text so well.
And that’s the problem. It is almost as if the playwright is suffering from logorrhea or a fear that she may never be heard from again. Her script crashes against the set, dares the actors to gasp for breadth. It is obvious from the word choice and the well-turned phrases that George is a playwright who can write a mean scene. However, “The Watson Effect” lists, bogged down by one of the hardest and almost heretical things to say about a play- it just has too many words.
Another issue with the text itself is the subject. Exploring AI’s relationship to people is very interesting, but George is largely retracing borrowed ground. Humanoid AI has inspired fear and fantasy for decades – Philip K. Dick territory, and the 2014 release of “Ex-Machina,” pretty much has the scheming AI model down pat. There is some new ground here, but not much.
Nonetheless, the play has incredible elements of brilliance. The set may well be one of the best all season with its beautifully executed brick walls, rotating elements and well-placed props. The sound design is particularly interesting as well. The moving set, the ticking of things, incidental music here and there, give the play a wonderfully layered feel.
Even costumes are well done with the costume shifts between eras swiftly and efficiently executed.
For all that, “The Watson Effect” is a promising play with an excellent cast and a stunning set. As is, it’s fun to watch and serves up some interesting ideas- but it is in sore need of a trim. Once it has that, the truly superior cast and set designer will have a play worthy of their considerable talents.
Showing through Dec 6, 2015
Fri & Sat @8pm & Sun @2pm