The first words ever spoken over the telephone were reportedly, “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.” But history remembers the man who spoke those words, Alexander Graham Bell, far more than his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, the recipient of that first-ever phone call. Madeleine George’s play “The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence,” a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, traces the evolution of interpersonal communication since that day through four of history’s real and imagined Watsons: Bell’s assistant, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, the artificially intelligent computer that became a champion on “Jeopardy!,” and a modern-day IT guy.
“Our Watsons are the guy on the sidelines, the sidekick, the underdog that doesn’t get the recognition,” says Allison Heishman, who will direct the play’s Philadelphia premiere at Azuka Theatre this month. “And the characters that orbit these Watsons throughout history would definitely be considered outcasts. They struggle to connect and figure out their way in the world, so it’s really exciting to see how these flawed and imperfect but wonderfully human people find their way to connect with other people.”
George’s play jumps back and forth between these four periods, finding a love triangle that echoes through time, portrayed in each era by David Bardeen, Corinna Burns and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen. Heishman says that George was inspired by the “wonderfully layered idea plays” of writers like Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner. “The most fun aspect of this has been going through the script and realizing that there are ideas woven in and out of these scenes in multiple different ways.”
Too much technology?
By starting out with the invention of the telephone, George finds a line of technology and communication that culminates in our modern hyper-connected age of Facebook and Twitter. The show’s love triangle examines whether that progress has actually led to more and deeper connections between people.
“All this technology has been created out of the desire to bring people closer together,” Heishman says, “but at the same time it’s really driven us apart. The fact that it’s all been driven by this basic human need to be with other people and have a tribe is scary and wonderful.
“What’s so unique about this play is that it explores this same twisted love story through different technologies, different time periods, and different lenses, and in the end you’re left with the question of whether we’re really learning anything.”
‘The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence’
Off-Broad Street Theatre
1636 Sansom St.