Not so elementary, my dear Watson

CoHo's triple play about a trio of Watsons and the difficulties of communication and artificial intelligence rings some unusual bells

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, at CoHo Theatre, is not about Sherlock Holmes. His sidekick, Dr. Watson, makes an appearance, but Mr. Holmes himself is absent. And the play, which is sometimes confusing but also swiftly entertaining, is somewhat of a mystery: Will our protagonists get what they need? Will they know they need it?

So, then, you talk into this part? Eric Martin Reid and Sarah Ellis Smith contemplate Bell’s talking machine. Photo: Owen Carey

Directed by CoHo Artistic Director Philip Cuomo, Madeleine George’s Watson Intelligence comprises three stories, each set in a different time period and with a different set of characters, who nevertheless are named the same and played by the same three actors in each era. The stories are connected loosely to each other, at best, even when characters from one period wind up in another. The thread that connects them is the name “Watson” – the man on the other end of the phone when Alexander Graham Bell makes his first phone call; Holmes’s sidekick; and the name of the artificial-intelligence computer that won Jeopardy in 2011.

The conceit is a clever one – Watson(s) represent changing technology over time, while people remain virtually the same (they even have the same names and faces to drive that point home). Questions are posed: Do we actually communicate any better with all of our inventions and devices, so many of them aimed at making us communicate more or better? Or has the advent of artificial reality driven us farther apart?

Sarah Ellis Smith: It’s about communicating, right? Photo: Owen Carey

The actors here tackle the multiple roles with what characters in the play call “money” and “salary” (one of the playwright George’s many linguistic tricks is to have characters “accidentally” confuse these words with “brains” and “dignity,” respectively). Eric Martin Reid is mopey and a bit understated as each Watson – artificial intelligence computer and “dweeb team” computer tech in the contemporary setting; Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes story; and Thomas Watson, who accepted Bell’s first phone call. He is especially strong in the contemporary roles, playing the human Watson in such a way that you find yourself wondering – as does his love interest, artificial intelligence business owner Eliza – if he could be the computer come to life. Gavin Hoffman is appropriately hammy and entertainingly overwrought as the two Frank Merricks, both in bad marriages (one heartbreaking for him, the other utterly disturbing) to the lovely and confused-by-love Eliza, played by Sarah Ellis Smith.

Smith, in her Portland acting debut, both carries and steals this production. She is the beating heart of this play, and its thoughtful intelligence. The audience’s connection to the often-cerebral storylines hinges on a likable, believable Eliza. Smith gives us all that and more. She is equally believable as the modern-day entrepreneur with a revolutionary fist raised, and as the longsuffering, endangered wife with injured hands. Her British accent is flawless, and her calm, quiet sadness is palpable.

Scenic and lighting designer Peter Ksander’s set is impeccable, as is his collaboration with props master Amy Chiao. At first glance it’s rather unremarkable: a couch, wooden chairs, a computer desk, a messy bed upstairs, a plant, a coat rack. But nothing is on this set in CoHo’s intimate space that does not have a reason to be there. Nothing is purely decoration. The plant becomes a hiding spot (though not a good one) for our spying Watson. Wooden chairs serve multiple roles: a seat for our artificial-intelligence Watson; train seats for Victorian Watson; a coffee shop seat for Eliza. The couch is … well, the couch is everything.

Smith and Gavin Hoffman: perplexing relationships. Photo: Owen Carey

Spoiler alert: The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence will not wrap up neatly, and the questions it raises will go mostly unanswered. There are some confusing plot points – the one involving the Holmes Watson is particularly puzzling and disconnected – but this lively and entertaining production more than makes up for it with both comedy and suspense. Cuomo’s deft direction and the skilled ensemble make the two hours fly by. More than anything, they just want to give us what we need – even if we aren’t exactly sure what that is.

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The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence continues through Sept 30 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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