Sometime the Show Should be Cancelled

I went to Geva for the script-in-hand reading of The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence. I've been to readings like this before and I've almost always enjoyed it. To put an optimistic spin on it, I speculate that playwright Madeleine George started with a functional script a few weeks ago, but in the process of tweaking it, the changes started to get quite radical. By the time it was time to get ready for a performance, it was nowhere near ready. As such, the whole play made little sense.

I think I understand what she was getting at: it seems an inordinate number of assistants happened to be named "Watson". There's Thomas A. Watson of Alexander Graham Bell fame, Sherlock Holmes assistant Dr. Watson, and most recently, the name of IBM's artificial intelligence computer that competed on Jeopardy. And looking back, all the Watsons as assistants share a certain privacy of personal affairs, and share being remembered as nearly machines — as tools that helped others complete their projects.

In drawing that parallel, she wanted to make some kind of literal comparison to the mechanical nature. As she mentioned in the discussion afterward, we continue to flock to technology and that makes us more mechanical than if we didn't.

But aside from an interesting premise, the play was severely lacking. Not only was the plot (two and a half intertwined stories) barely tied together, but I couldn't bring myself to get fully engaged because I found all the characters consistently more unlikeable than likable. But the biggest problems were numerous unresolved allusions: who, if anyone was actually artificial? if the intent was to show the parallels between various Watsons, why did they grow ever disparate? does George know that Eliza shares the name with an early computer program that eerily mimicked talking to a person (what we might call a chatbot today)? if Eliza and Merrick were supposed to be reasonably competent, why were they both portrayed as pathetically helpless? how could Eliza and Merrick have had a relationship she is a cutting-edge programmer from the 2010s but he appears to exist in the world of rotary phones and typewriters like he never left 1977?

It was like going to the shooting range, throwing a bunch of bullets on the ground and asking, "so how's my accuracy?" In the talkback, the audience barely said anything about the play. I think it's because nobody had a clue where to start — the only thing that came to my mind was to say that I thought near-genius computer scientist Eliza welcomed her nerdy stalker into her bed far too easily.

I am hopeful, however, that George can turn this around and make something interesting an enjoyable. But sometimes despite the aphorism, the show should be cancelled.

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