One show rarely produces three slightly parallel scenarios with characters of identical names played by the same three actors. That yields four Watsons (Devin Clark), three Elizas (Chesson Kusterer-Seagroves) and two Merricks (Ken Mitten), directed by one Robin Tynes in “The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence” at NODA’s UpStage.
Pay attention, because Madeleine George’s play (a 2014 Pulitzer finalist) gets tricky right away. You can’t miss a moment of the layered scheme, all surrounding four beings named Watson: a robot with artificial intelligence, a computer nerd, a sidekick to detective Sherlock Holmes, and the assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, pioneer of telephone communications.
The play opens on Feb. 16, 2011, as former IBM executive Eliza prepares to watch an episode of “Jeopardy!” showcasing a robot. She hesitates, pondering the jealousy that could ensue from her own Watson.
Watson Two is a Dweeb Team computer technician hired by Eliza’s ex-husband, Merrick – first to fix his computer, then to spy on Eliza to figure out her plan to destroy him and his political campaign to become city auditor.
After the author invests heavily in these initial two plots, her sidekick-to-Holmes and assistant-to-Bell scenarios feel underdeveloped and irrelevant.
Clark plays an amazingly humanoid Watson with soothing monotone responses. His intentionally empty eyes and blank stare soften over time, as his human characteristics develop. In another scene, he effortlessly becomes the easygoing computer nerd trusted by Eliza and Merrick. Playing for both teams gets hairy when deciding where his loyalty lies.
Kusterer-Seagroves didn’t bat an eye, comically spewing f-bombs as modern inventor Eliza. She displays the characteristics of many women who are confused about wants and needs when a heart is at stake. At other times, she’s refined British Eliza, suspicious of her husband’s abnormal behavior and rightfully so.
Mitten has the precise amount of paranoia as Merrick, the Bernie Sanders-like politician who wants to dismantle the government, then becomes Merrick, the British mechanical engineer entertaining thoughts of a more serene life.
Understandably, the tiny stage doesn’t allow for much creativity in decor. Yet Tynes, who also designed the set, made an admirable attempt.
A gray plaid couch and brown wooden coffee table act as a bed with attached pillows that easily flip over in modern Eliza’s apartment. A simple brown desk and mismatched chair are used for Merrick’s modern office, a 1930s radio studio and an eating table where 19th-century British Merrick breaks bread. A hint of color might have added a bit of life to the drab furnishings and separated each story line.
In “Watson Intelligence,” indecisiveness is a baffling but beautiful trait, depending on which role you assume. The multifaceted play can be wordy and not easily understood at times. What is clear, however, is that most things real or unreal can be as convoluted or simple as the entities involved.
This story was produced through the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.
The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence
When: Through Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:00 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: UpStage, 3306-C N. Davidson St.
Running time: 120 minutes with one intermission.
Details: 704-749-4245 or upstagenoda.com.