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The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

By Madeleine George

Directed by Jeremy Wechsler

Produced by Theater Wit

Many Interweaving Stories With an Elusive Reward

It’s been a successful year for Theater Wit, with Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play having been extended twice, and Bad Jews still playing at the Royal George. Perhaps artistic director Jeremy Wechsler felt comfortable doing something a bit stranger for his new show while his cash cow runs through the end of October. This past summer, Theater Wit hosted playwright Madeline George, whose work they have previously performed, for revisions of her new play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. Billed as a “homage” and meditation to technological innovation, the play has a much stronger story than those phrases tend to imply. In fact, it has three stories, which explore how technology at best can facilitate connections between people, not replace them.

Theatre Wit stages The (Curious Case of the ) Watson Intelligence, Sept. 23, 2015. Cast is Joe Dempsey as Merrick, Joe Foust as Watson, and Kristina Valada-Viars as Eliza Charles Osgood Photography
Kristina Valada-Viars and Joe Foust. All photos by Charles Osgood.

In the storyline that takes place closest to the present, programming genius Eliza (Kristina Valda-Viars) is putting the final touches on an AI she developed, called Watson (Joe Foust). She chats with it while sucking whiskey through a twizzler, and he always answers her with calm, friendly encouragement, even though he frequently reminds her that he doesn’t really understand what she’s saying. She knows it’s silly, but Eliza can’t help asking Watson if he’ll be jealous of the other version of himself which is winning on Jeopardy. Of course, he won’t. Her Watson was made to provide emotional flattery, and she’s been using him a lot since she broke up with her clingy, paranoid boyfriend, Merrick (Joe Dempsey). But Watson isn’t really meant for people like her. Eliza was a fan of Noam Chomsky, and wanted to do something to allow the disenfranchised to improve their lot, but on an individual scale, by catering to their lack of education and motivation. Ideally, Watson will not only provide his users with a steady stream of compliments and sympathetic murmurings, but also with helpful tips about navigating bureaucracy, and reminders to take care of themselves. Obviously, this is a great idea that everybody will want to buy into.

Theatre Wit stages The (Curious Case of the ) Watson Intelligence, Sept. 23, 2015. Cast is Joe Dempsey as Merrick, Joe Foust as Watson, and Kristina Valada-Viars as Eliza Charles Osgood Photography
Joe Foust and Joe Dempsey

Meanwhile, Merrick is running for city auditor on an anti-government waste platform, ironically also inspired by exposure to Chomsky’s calls to social action. Frustrated with a malfunctioning computer, he calls the Dweeb Team, and is answered by Joshua Watson (all of each actor’s characters share the same name). Merrick is so impressed with Joshua Watson’s honesty and effectiveness, he hires the computer whiz to spy on Eliza. Joshua Watson agrees to do so, but gets caught immediately. However, Eliza is likewise so impressed by his geniality, she invites him upstairs for sex, and notices that he behaves very similarly to the Watson she has been building.

The other two stories get less time devoted to them, and their thematic connection only emerges late in the play. In the 1930s, Eliza the radio host is interviewing Thomas Watson, the assistant of Alexander Graham Bell. He claims their relationship was much more personal than has been recognized by history, and that the difference between Bell’s words “I want to see you,” and “I want you,” is quite significant. And in the nineteenth century, Eliza attempts to contact Sherlock Holmes about mysterious marks she has found on her body, but winds up telling Doctor Watson about the bizarre and alarming behavior of her bi-polar husband, the mechanical inventor Merrick.

Theatre Wit stages The (Curious Case of the ) Watson Intelligence, Sept. 23, 2015. Cast is Joe Dempsey as Merrick, Joe Foust as Watson, and Kristina Valada-Viars as Eliza Charles Osgood Photography
Kristina Valada-Viars and Joe Foust

Although the third plotline would seem to be the one with the most tension, George’s interest is in the love triangle (or possibly, quadrangle) between the modern Eliza, Merrick, Joshua Watson, and AI Watson. Two factors that work in favor of this are the magnetism of the actors, and the cleverness of Wechsler’s staging. Valada-Viars is credible as a smart woman under a huge amount of strain, who knows she ought to be behaving more reasonably than she is, and yet has much more difficulty analyzing herself than what goes on around her. Dempsey does indeed seem unstable as Merrick, both past and present, and prone to flights of fancy. However, much of what he says makes sense, and he argues with eloquence to match his passion. The one scene at the end of the play in which they meet is one of its strongest, in which two people finally work together in pursuit of solutions, or at least, understanding of each other’s problems.

Joe Foust and Kristina Valada-Viars

Until then, however, the play belongs to Joe Foust as the many Watsons. They are often in humorous situations—the imperfect AI, the bumbling sidekick—and yet, Foust always injects his performance with such benevolence, it is easy to see why the Elizas and Merricks instinctually trust him. He’s generally soothing and joyous, and when hurt, is wounded deeply. Some versions of Watson even offer a great deal of wisdom. Costume designer Crystal Jovae Mazur has provided him with the outfit of a schlub, but Mike Durst’s lighting design is sympathetic to him.

Director Wechsler handles the overlapping plots with clarity, and Joe Schermoly’s scenic design is full of ingenious surprises. The physical worlds slowly mingle, reflecting how George writes about them, until they come together for the climactic scenes. The problem many people seem to be having with this play is whether such a complicated style serves the story’s message. The modern Eliza agonizes over why she is dissatisfied with what appears to be the perfect man. The answer is that as a genius, Eliza requires challenge, and all the Watsons can only coddle her. Alarming and infuriating as Merrick is, his and Eliza’s fallibilities spur each other’s innovations. But it takes a very long time for us to see what Merrick offers that Josh Watson doesn’t, and even then, the technological aspect is a bit of a red herring, since a flesh-and-blood person is being compared to a dildo as much as the robots are. It took until the final scene of each storyline for me to make up an interpretation of each that I found satisfactory. Until I reached that point, I enjoyed the production, but was anxious about whether it was really leading anywhere. I can only hope other people find some meaning to assign The Watson Intelligence, as well.


Jacob Davis

This show has been Jeff recommended.

Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 N Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $12-36; to order, call 773-975-8150 or visit Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00 pm through November 14. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.