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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence

Review by ANTHONY CHASE


a man sits still in a chair
Brendan Didio as Watson in "The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence"

It is only in the final minutes of The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence at Road Less Traveled Theater, that playwright Madeleine George will tie the three threads of her story together.  Mr. Watson, the third of three historic Watsons, the famed assistant to Alexander Graham Bell who was summoned in the very first telephone transmission in1876 with the immortal words, “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you,” steps across time to explain to Eliza, our protagonist, how technology and the basic need for human connection are fused, and how our need for each other, “is not a weakness. It is the first condition of human life.”

 

That is all you need to know.

 

At times, as it’s gearing up, the play might seem like a confused cacophony of words and plot fragments. The playwright hurls forward and backward through time – 1871, 1891, 1931, and 2011, with three sets of characters, all named Watson, Eliza, and Merrick.

 

Brendan Didio plays all the Watsons. Emily Yancey plays all the Elizas.  Dave Hayes plays all the Merricks.

 

Watson Plot One involves an empathetic computerized robot who is being trained by inventor, “Eliza,” to be a companion and therapist for the disadvantaged. He is the namesake of the IBM Watson computer that won the Jeopardy challenge on television in 2011.

 

Watson Plot Two is Dr. Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories, as in “Elementary, my dear Watson.” 

 

Watson Plot Three is the Watson of telephone fame.

 

The central plot is about how the 2011 Eliza has left her husband, Merrick, and is ignoring him, despite his incessant telephone calls. When he sends a computer tech nerd, also named Watson, to spy on her, his scheme backfires spectacularly. 

 

This central plot is amplified and contrasted by the two other stories. First is the case of a 19th century Eliza who meets Dr. Watson when she pays a visit to Baker Street in hopes of getting Sherlock Holmes to investigate the peculiar behavior of her inventor husband, and some curious punctures on her forearms. The other less developed story follows Mr. “come here I need you,” Watson, to a radio program in the 1930s.

 

The production, directed by John Hurley, benefits from a stellar cast.  Emily Yancey, who has clearly emerged as one of Buffalo’s foremost comic leading ladies, takes on Eliza, a woman who thinks she is sensible and grounded, but who is very clearly losing her grip, with hilarious, and at times arguably shameless, gusto.

 

Dave Hayes is, as always, appealing and irrepressibly funny as the self-effacing jilted husband in the 2011 plot, and as the narcissistic monster of the Victorian Sherlock Holmes plot. His gift is to push absurdity further and further with deadpan sincerity. 

 

Brendan Didio has been handed a most delicious role as Watson, Watson, Watson, and Watson. The play’s opening moments, when his robotic character comfortingly, but emotionlessly engages with Eliza, endeavoring to make her happy by whatever means possible, set the tone.  His unironic repetitions of lines like, “I don’t think I understand what you mean but I’d like to.  Can you give me a nudge in the right direction?” are inexplicably hilarious. 

 

The scenes play like comedy sketches, as they build the meandering story. Taken in isolation, which I do recommend, they are often fabulously entertaining.  Worry not.  The point of the evening will reveal itself.


two men in Victorian clothes have mugs of beer
Dave Hayes as Merrick and Brendan Didio as Watson, chat amiably over a beer.

Highlights include Dr. Watson’s interview with Eliza’s inventor husband, during which Watson plies the man with beer and elicits an increasingly and hilariously alarming story of his plans for his wife. There is also the marvelous scene in which 2011 Eliza and tech-dweeb Watson realize their mutual, if unlikely, attraction for each other. 


a man and woman kissing
Brendan Didio as Watson and Emily Yancey as Eliza find love unexpectedly

The remarkable Dyan Burlingame delivers yet another eye-popping and highly effective set, augmented by striking and enormously engaging sound and projection by talented Katie Menke and light by the ever-impressive John Rickus.

 

The costumes have been designed by the remarkable Jenna Damberger. The eclectic array of props were mastered by the ubiquitous Diane Almeter Jones – get a load of that Alexander Graham Bell telephone folks!

 

The play was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist and Road Less Traveled has waited a long time to produce this show, which was first on their schedule before the pandemic.  This production was worth the wait. 


a man and a woman with a laptop computer
Intelligence meets Artificial Intelligence; Brendan Didio and Emily Yancey in "The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence"

 

 

 

 

 

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