The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence puts non-linearity first

Moxie Theatre production gives noble attempt but characters, concision, and coherence suffer

Justin Lang and Jo Anne Glover in Watson Intelligence at Moxie Theatre
  • Justin Lang and Jo Anne Glover in Watson Intelligence at Moxie Theatre

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

  • Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
  • $20 - $30

You can almost hear Eliza Merrick sing, “why can’t a man, be more like my robot?” She worked on IBM’s famous WATSON, the supercomputer that beat two past champions on Jeopardy (before the first match, the producers feared the computer could buzz too quickly; gave it a handicap). Eliza left the company on unfriendly terms. She stole her prototype, called “Watson.”

She’s programming him to serve the needy. But in the midst of a messy divorce — her controlling ex has a spy chart her moves — she decides that her needs take precedence.

Now the A.I.’s innocent. When in doubt, he asks “could you nudge me in the right direction?” But when he says “I just want to give you what you need” — hey, why not take him literally?

Madeline George has two plays currently running in San Diego: Precious Little at Innermission; and Watson Intelligence at Moxie. Both show her as an ideas-first author. Like the young Tom Stoppard, she builds characters from intricate situations, rather than from within. At times she cuts through her flashy, time-jumping presentation and sparks lively thoughts, and other times when she do go on, for cleverness’ sake.

Eddie Yaroch and Justin Lang in Watson Intelligence at Moxie Theatre

Eddie Yaroch and Justin Lang in Watson Intelligence at Moxie Theatre

The critic Walter Kerr said “it is better to make a character than to make a point.” George should heed this advice.

If you don’t count Thomas J. Watson of IBM, after whom the supercomputer was named, the play has five Watsons: the AI prototype; Joshua Watson, Dweeb Team IT house-caller and near perfect companion for Eliza; the faithful Dr. John H. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame (did he invent the spectacularly precise detective?); the supercomputer; and Thomas A. Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s lab assistant — all five natural caregivers who live to serve.

One less Watson — Thomas A? — would have made the playwright’s comparisons clearer and easier to follow.

There are two Frank Merricks (three, if you link the name with John Merrick, the Elephant Man of Victorian times): the Frank of today, a vein-bulging narcissist running for City Auditor so he can “dismantle the government”; and his “prototype,” a 19th century inventor eager to build a robot-version of his wife, so he can lock the real one away.

The Watsons and Merricks iterate themes: what would an ideal companion be like (and would you even want someone that predictable)?; what happens if — when — the Technological Singularity occurs, and A.I’s are smarter than mortals?; and doesn’t the late Victorian Era, as many now point out, resemble our own?

Watson Intelligence was a nominee for the Pulitzer of 2013 (I wonder if the committee saw the play or just read it; reading makes it much easier to follow). It’s non-linear with a vengeance.

Moxie Theatre and gifted director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg smooth out most of the bumps and bounces. Jerry Sonnenberg’s set’s a marvel: brick walls move, as does a dualistic centerpiece, bed one side, desk the other, on a turntable. Gears click into place on the rear wall. Then and now flip-flop in seconds. The set does with space what the script does with time. Excellent work.

Jo Anne Glover plays all the Elizas, Eddie Yaroch the Merricks, and Justin Lang the Watsons. Along with manic leaps from character to character, the playwright gives them massive monologues that overexplain and dull momentum. Opening night had some glitches but the actors, decked in Desiree Hatfield-Buckley’s instantly changeable costumes, proved game throughout.

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