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REVIEW: Allure of the Machine in The Watson Intelligence (Park Square)

Adam Harris and Kathryn Fumie in Park Square Theatre’s The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Human preferences for computer relationships over than of human relationships is the main theme underlying the play The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. But, as with the 2015 movie Her, the preference seems to be due to human inadequacy rather than the superiority of technology as companions. Although Madeleine George’s play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, director Leah Cooper’s production of this “brainy” play at Park Square Theatre fails to connect with its audience.

Kathryn Fumie and Adam Harris engage in an investigation. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

George’s play was inspired by the IBM supercomputer Watson, which famously won on the Jeopardy television show. This supercomputer is referenced but is not a character in the show. Instead, a “Siri” type operating system names Watson which makes repeated appearances. The play includes three other Watsons, including: (1) Thomas A. Watson, who assisted Alexander Graham Bell in the invention of the telephone; (2) Sherlock Homes’ sidekick Dr. John Watson; and (3) Josh Watson, a “Dweeb” team member who makes house calls to repair computers.

The play utlizes three actors. All three ably play their roles, but there is a something lacking in their interactions; the result doesn’t coalesce into a real play, rather than just a series of scenes. H. Adam Harris plays all four Watsons as a self-sacrificing individual/computer who seeks to serve and protect others even when they do not want protection. Kathryn Fumie plays Eliza in two key roles. In one, her Eliza is a Victorian-age lady who unknowingly faces danger from her husband. In the second, her Eliza is a computer prodigy who left her job working on the Watson supercomputer to create her own Watson app to help the underprivileged navigate their way through the welfare bureaucracy.

Adam Whisner is the final character who plays Eliza’s husband in both story lines. One husband is a gun inventor in Victorian England who is secretly building a Stepford-style replacement for his wife. The second husband is a tea-party type politician running for the local auditor’s position while he persists in stalking his ex-wife. Both Dr. Watson and Dweeb-team Watson seek to protect the two Elizas from their husbands.

The play has a time travel story line but little of that can be gleaned from the performance. Instead, the show appears to be a series of different storylines and different themes involving technology that is unified by the fact that there is always a Watson involved. Cooper presents a couple of strong scenes, including Dr. Watson’s hilarious attempt to follow Whisner’s character in Victorian England and the final scene where Fumie’s and Whisner’s contemporary characters share the stage for the first time and have a genuine conversation. Most of the play, however, moves slowly with much talk and little action.

Lance Brockman designed an impressive and detailed set design with a brick background that functionally looks like a Victorian home, a warehouse rehab office and a warehouse apartment. Katherine Horowitz’s sound design cleverly brings in sounds of computers and other machines during the show.
The play’s premise about the different Watsons is clever, but it fails to go beyond that. The play’s words espouses many themes about humans and computers, but it fails to ignite this dialog into a real play.

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence plays through April 30 at Park Square Theatre.

Bev Wolfe