"Mr. Watson -- come here -- I want to see you!" is repeated eight times in Madeleine George's new play, The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence at Playwrights Horizons. Historically-minded viewers will immediately recognize that phrase as the 19th century equivalent of "one small step for man"; that is to say, these were the first words successfully transmitted over Alexander Graham Bell's newly-invented acoustic telephone on March 10, 1876. Not-so-learned patrons might guess that it derives from the Sherlock Holmes stories, with good old Dr. Watson being the fellow summoned. Computer dweebs might immediately center on Watson, the IBM computer that in 2011 defeated the all-time champions on the television game-show Jeopardy!
Ms. George, as it turns out, is referring to them all, along with a contemporary computer dweeb named -- naturally enough -- Watson. Her play is an intricate puzzle built around the quest to invent machines that bring "better living through technology." There are four Watson characters -- one a robotic machine -- as the play jumps back and forth between 1876, 1891, 1931 and today.
And there, alas, is the fly in the ointment or -- more aptly -- the virus in the computer. The playwright has built a sturdy-seeming house of cards, supported much of the way by intriguing characters and inviting dialogue. The second act starts with one of the strongest scenes, a bedroom tryst which begins with the modern-day Watson saying "I started out training to be a phlebotomist..." and somehow winds up with Billy Joel. And then, The Watson Intelligence turns baffling. There is too much talk; specifically, so much time spent on philosophizing by the 1891 and 1876 characters that your ears could glaze over. If we stick with the puzzle analogy, it's as if we've patched together all the distinctive sections of a 1000-piece jigsaw and are suddenly faced with 275 pieces of deep blue sea. Ms. George's delightful conceit turns irremediably nondelightful, and there's nothing to be done but wait for everyone to stop talking.
The four Watsons are played very nicely by John Ellison Conlee, a Tony-nominee for his role as the overweight steelworker in The Full Monty. Conlee effortlessly switches from Watson to Watson, contributing an especially droll impersonation as the computer-Watson. Amanda Quaid, who was memorable as the girl in Mike Bartlett's Cock, humanizes the play and does a fine job as the several Elizas. They are joined by David Costabile as the third, crotchety side of the triangle.
Director Leigh Silverman (Well, Chinglish) helps the play and the actors along. She has also devised a workable production scheme with set designer Louisa Thompson and some well-choreographed curtains on traveler tracks. But the last forty minutes of The Watson Intelligence -- which lasts slightly over two hours, not including intermission -- are mighty foggy.