Review: The curious play of ‘The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence’

 Corinna Burns and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen in Azuka Theatre's production of 'The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence.' (Photo courtesy of AustinArt.com)

Corinna Burns and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen in Azuka Theatre's production of 'The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence.' (Photo courtesy of AustinArt.com)

“The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence,” being given an able production by Azuka Theatre, is supposed to be a play about connection, but there’s little sense to the dots it connects.

 

The characters in Madeleine George’s earnest but over-eager play, which bends time between the here-and-now and last two centuries, fail even to connect with themselves — they sometimes say things with a heartfelt intensity that replaces meaning. The emotion is obvious. The reason for it is not.

The result: Some of the scenes in “Watson Intelligence” feel as if we’re witnessing a grand construct that teeters on its design flaws, others feel like acting-school exercises. Put ’em together, you have a messy attempt at playing off Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson against an inventor named Frank Merrick (also fictional, although there are patent holders named Frank Merrick), a fictional Watson who’s a computer geek, a robot named Watson, the Watson computer that played “Jeopardy” against humans, and Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson.

That’s a lot of Watsons – thus the play’s name. “Watson Intelligence” begins with a woman (played by Corinna Burns) who’s left her IBM job to develop a robot named Watson with enough social skills and programming to help the downtrodden fight the system. She’s also left her husband (David Bardeen, who reminded me of Snidely Whiplash in his delivery), a malcontent who hates government. He’s running for a post as local auditor and spouts the sort of phony diatribe that sometimes flows in clumsy playwriting. (Much of the play seems self-conscious because of its over-writing.)

This guy, who can’t make his computer work, hires a computer geek named Watson (the excellent Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, who plays four Watsons, all of them well) to fix it, and then to spy on his estranged wife. The geek falls for the woman he spies on.

Alexander Graham Bell and others come into this in some ways, in a play that attempts to set up different love triangles over the centuries. Several plots meld, or maybe compete. Allison Heishman directs this to bring out its better points, but really, what do you do with an obtuse play like “Watson Intelligence?” You can pump it up with an impressive woodsy-roomed set by Dirk Durossette, and bring in Larry Fowler to provide neat time-travel music to link the scenes, but you’re still left with the script for “Watson Intelligence” – plenty of Watsons, not so much intelligence.

_“The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence,” produced by Azuka Theatre, runs through Nov. 23 at Off-Broad Street Theater, on the corner of 17th and Sansom Streets. 215-563-1100 or www.azukatheatre.org.

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