Pop quiz: who or what do people associate with the name, “Watson?”
If you answered, “Dr. John Watson,” Sherlock Holmes’ friend, you’d probably be in the majority. If you answered, “Thomas Watson,” Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, who heard the first words to come through the telephone, you’d be pretty smart. If you answered “the name of the IBM computer that beat the Jeopardy champions,” you might want to audition to be a contestant.
If you said, “Emma Watson,” the young actress, of the Harry Potter film franchise, you get an honorable mention. Any other Watson and you’re off-base.
Playwright Madeleine George has run with the coincidence that Holmes, Bell, and Jeopardy all had a “Watson” in their lives. She mixes in a computer repair man, also named Watson, and presto, she’s got the clever, funny, sexy and complicated, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence.
…clever, funny, sexy and complicated
Let’s take the complicated part first – the story. Eliza (JoAnne Glover) and Merrick (Eddie Yaroch) are on the outs. Merrick is Mr. Angry – he’s running for public office because he thinks that government is superfluous. He wants to get into government so he can destroy it. Eliza has escaped Merrick’s wrath by leaving IBM, where she worked on the Watson computer that was trained to parse natural language and scan a huge knowledge database for answers to questions. Eliza seems to have walked away with some of the project’s secrets, as she’s built a prototype of Watson in human form (Justin Lang).
Meanwhile, Merrick’s computer breaks, and a repair guy (also Mr. Lang, also named Watson) comes to repair it. Merrick is impressed with Watson’s ability to troubleshoot his computer, his dedication, and his willingness to work for a low salary and hires him to spend a week following Eliza and reporting what she’s up to. Merrick has been trying to reach Eliza, but she hasn’t been taking his calls.
Bingo! The story morphs into a Sherlock Holmes mystery, combined with a debate about what Alexander Graham really said in that first telephone message. Of course, Watson is involved in both, as well, ultimately, as with Eliza.
Ms. George pulls the several stories together under the theme of what happens when either we think we have managed to control technology, as well as what happens when we think that technology is controlling us. Along the way, there’s a lot of funny lines to be savored, even if there’s a fair amount of head-scratching about what’s actually going on.
Delicia Turner Sonnenberg comes off her fast and furious My Mañana Comes at San Diego REP and returns to Moxie Theatre, her home base, to direct an ensemble show featuring three of San Diego’s most reliable actors. Casting solidly experienced pays off: Watson features sly touches pulled off expertly. Ms. Glover, Mr. Lang, and Mr. Yaroch have never been better.
Jerry Sonnenberg surprises with a set mounted on a turntable, a rarity for the Rolando-based company. Desiree Hatfield-Buckley designed costumes that could be switched between Victorian England and the present time in an instant. Christopher Renda’s lighting plot was flexible enough to make several distinct playing areas, and David Scott’s sound design featured many different styles of telephone ringers. Dramaturg Patricia Moran Collins had to be the hardest working member of the company, as she helped everyone to sort out all of the references, both historical and contemporary.
Moxie has another winner. Make time in your holiday season to enjoy it.