If Watson’s second, who comes first? That’s the question of Madeleine George’s intensely brainy dramedy.
Who’s the Watson in the title of this largely comic think piece on technology and its relationship to our relationships? Depends which scene you’re in. There’s the one who assisted Alexander Graham Bell, immortalized in the famous (and probably misremembered) first telephone transmission; there’s the sidekick to that master detective Sherlock Holmes; there’s the IBM supercomputer that famously competed on Jeopardy! and is suddenly back in the public consciousness, rubbing elbows with Bob Dylan in TV commercials; and there’s the computer technician turned private investigator invented by playwright Madeleine George.
George’s 2013 play, a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, treats all of these chronologically and geographically disparate threads as parts of a semi-unified story, centering on a messy breakup between characters played by Joe Dempsey and Kristina Valada-Viars. As the piece progresses, it homes in on the timeline in which Valada-Viars’s A.I. researcher, Eliza, falls into an affair with the dweeby PI sent after her by her paranoid ex.
As Eliza begins to feel smothered by the too-perfect attentions of this Watson (played, like the rest, by Joe Foust), George smartly uses the various technologies at play to comment on our own capacities for intimacy. The modern Eliza works in programming emotional intelligence, but lacks it in herself; she aims for a tech that wants “to give you what you need,” but feels trapped when a suitor offers that to her.
If anything, George’s plotting and parallels can feel aggressively intelligent themselves; the script (which George has heavily revised for Theater Wit’s Chicago premiere) contains so many a-ha moments you almost want to tell it to stop trying so hard. But Jeremy Wechsler’s staging, featuring an impressive set design by Joe Schermoly, sports such honest acting from Valada-Viars, Dempsey and Foust that you forgive any excesses. Emotional intelligence, indeed.
Theater Wit. By Madeleine George. Directed by Jeremy Wechsler. With Joe Dempsey, Joe Foust, Kristina Valada-Viars. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.