“Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.” —The Wizard of Oz
The humbug wizard’s sentimental aphorism isn’t lost on Eliza, heroine of Madeleine George‘s odd, playful, exquisitely orchestrated The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, which premiered at New York’s Playwrights Horizons in 2013 and is now receiving a sort of second premiere at Theater Wit, featuring what director Jeremy Wechsler calls an “extensive rewrite.” As an elite techie with mad artificial intelligence skills, however, Eliza considers breakability a solvable problem.
We’re told that she cut her AI teeth working on Watson, IBM’s real-life cognitive—i.e., smart—supercomputer (lately seen in ads opposite Bob Dylan, who proposes writing a song with it). If an emotionally impervious cardiac muscle isn’t feasible for the near future, Eliza is more than capable of building the next best thing: a digital friend to whom we can safely entrust our hearts, knowing it can be relied on never to make us suffer. That friend, also called Watson, is ostensibly a device designed to “leverage” data and empathy for the disenfranchised—that is, to help poor folks navigate the social welfare grid while giving them the reassurance they need to do so. But as Eliza interacts with her Watson, developing his empathic function by feeding him the nuances of human thought, it’s clear that he’s growing on her. After all, who else in the whole wide world would tell her, “I just want to give you what you need”—and mean it?
Well, there is someone. Thanks to one of the better meet-cutes since Dorothy oiled up the Tin Man, Eliza finds herself in a hot romance with a strangely charismatic schlub named Josh Watson.
Actually, the secret of Josh’s appeal isn’t at all mysterious: Despite his pudgy, messy looks, his bad ‘stache, single pair of pants, and job as the tech equivalent of a burger flipper, despite his love of Applebee’s and the oeuvre of Billy Joel, he has—like Eliza’s coded Watson—an off-the-charts empathy quotient. Josh can read Eliza the way Yo Yo Ma reads Bach. Which, among other things, makes him a marvel in the sack. His only shortcoming is that, unlike Eliza’s Watson, he’s a human, and therefore constitutionally incapable of fulfilling her deepest wish—that, as she tells him, “I will never want for comfort again and you will be my perfect wondrous companion and you will never fail me or leave me alone”—however hard he may try. Much of The Watson Intelligence concerns Eliza’s attempts to wrestle that out.
Not all of it, though. The show certainly has a lot to say about how much we actually want from humans and machines and in what proportions. It also explores the true—and in our time of arrogant disrupters, habitually ignored—nature of innovation. Before she’s done, playwright George spins out time-hopping story lines involving two other Watsons: John H., the famous friend, collaborator, and amanuensis to Sherlock Holmes, and Thomas A., who assisted Alexander Graham Bell in creating the telephone and received the first over-the-wire voice transmission. Both men (or, rather, the character and the man) were distinguished by their ability to make themselves preternaturally useful to another. Indeed the “intelligence” of the title seems to be a genius for self-abnegating support. To paraphrase Milton (whose daughters, while we’re on the subject, gave themselves over to their father’s gift by reading and writing for him when he went blind), They also serve who only stand and help.
No one knows more about communal creativity than theater makers, and this production is a great example. With the help of Joe Schermoly’s clever and supremely efficient set, director Wechsler renders the intellectual and narrative complexities of the script not just clear but vivid and lots of fun. And his casting is perfect at a Platonic level. Joe Foust makes a tour de force of playing every Watson in sight, including the beta version of Eliza’s device. Each of them is simultaneously ludicrous and absorbing. Similarly, Joe Dempsey enlivens various incarnations of Frank Merrick, a selfish, paranoid businessman who shows up in multiple eras as if to work out his nasty karma. Kristina Valada-Viars’s Eliza, finally, is tough, anguished, sexual, believably astute. v