If you expect to see a pipe smoking, violin playing, deerstalker wearing detective Sherlock Holmes solving crimes you’ve come to the wrong show. This show is not about Holmes at all, it’s about his companion Dr. John Watson (and he does wear a deerstalker, fans of the iconic hat may rejoice!). Well, the play really isn’t about Dr. John Watson either. Actually it’s really very complicated and complex. The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence comes from the mind of award-winning playwright Madeline George and it won the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Playwriting Award. Her plot weaves together the lives of four Watsons, all across different timelines, adding in the characters of Eliza and Merrick across the timelines. All three characters are linked somehow, yet different. Does your brain hurt? Mine surely did after reading the description and I will admit that George’s theme, the growing trend of rejecting real human love and feelings for a machine that requires nothing in return, is simple in comparison to the journey her audiences take to get there. However, if you’re ready to strap in and go on the ride Silver Spring Stage will take you on one heck of a trip.
So, if the play isn’t about Dr. John Watson then who is it about? Well, it is about Dr. John Watson, and also Thomas A. Watson who assisted Alexander Graham Bell in the invention of the telephone, and Watson the supercomputer who competed on Jeopardy against Ken Jennings, and Josh Watson an everyday member of the Dweeb Team who happens to think Applebee’s is the greatest place ever. Unsung heroes who are happy without all the praise and accolades that come from being the more famous part of their team, who are just happy to have helped and been part of something bigger. These Watsons’ get their chance to shine and be recognized as this play is all about them!
Director Seth Ghitelman uses simple staging to make what is going on less about the actor’s movements and more about the words they are saying. He doesn’t add any extraneous movement just for the sake of not having the actors in one place for too long, which makes the moves that they do make more powerful. He also takes the option for the cheap laugh when it is available and the result is priceless. He also takes a moment to break the fifth wall in act one during the timeline change of the character Merrick, a member of the tech crew comes on stage and assists in the costume and hair change. A moment that is not overplayed and doesn’t seem terribly out of the ordinary in the sequence of the play.
If you have ever wondered what the inside of a cluttered mind may look like, it probably looks a lot like Set Designer Leigh Rawls set. Floor to ceiling shelves on two walls are covered with nick-nacks of all sizes that are moved in and out to create the different worlds of the characters and timelines. Rawls’ set dressing items are perfectly picked and combined with Sonya Okin and Brendan Murray’s props bring to life the home of a detective, apartment of a tech genius, and many other locations. Lighting Designer Bill Strein and Sound Designer Rich Frangiamore work together to create the mood. The lighting is simple not overpowering the actors but simply bathing them in appropriate color washes to set the tone of each scene. Familiar sounds filter in through the show such as a ringing cellphone and the audio of Jeopardy, specifically the night that Supercomputer Watson challenged Ken Jennings.
Taking on the role of Watson, all of them, is Michael Abendshein. The man works hard for that title character and proves that he is worthy of it at every turn. He is on stage every scene of the show, except the final one, leaving the stage to make a costume change and come right back on. While some could argue that Abendshein is cast against his type, I would argue that the statement is far from the truth. As Josh he finds the character’s truth and plays it without fail. He is charming, quirky, steadfast, loving, and indignant. Josh knows and believes he is a great catch and it is clear that Abendshein believes it too. His creation of Josh is the man that every woman wants and when she gets him it’s too much for her to handle, he is so good and genuinely wants to make others happy. He is so genuine it almost makes you sick or wanting to bop him in the nose because you aren’t that way (but don’t do it! The show needs him!). As Dr. John Watson and Thomas A. Watson, Abendshein seems to have a harder time sinking into the roles as easily, perhaps due to the stark difference in their mannerisms and accent between the two and Josh. However, once he got his momentum up he slid into the roles and was just as all in as he was before.
Actress Jenn Robinson plays Eliza Merrick across all three timelines. In her modern timeline Robinson plays Eliza as frank and to the point, her excitement and confusion in love is very relatable and it is very clear that she knows exactly who her character is and what she wants. It is in this modern day timeline that Robinson bears her heart to the audience in a monologue of heartbreak and pain, it is such a vulnerable moment that she doesn’t back off of and could possibly lead to a few tears. Unlike Abendshein taking on her character’s British persona seemed very easy for Robinson, sliding naturally into the accent and mannerisms and seeming quite comfortable in the layered costume. While her character doesn’t take the stage as much as Abendshein, Robinson makes sure that you do remember her when she is there.
Mickey MacIntyre takes on Frank Merrick, and the man brings the humor! His characters are both narcissists who blame their wives for depressing them and are looking to get their revenge. Both Franks are repulsive characters, however MacIntyre manages to stay connected to their reality and remain grounded. It is very easy to read a character and judge them, however it is clear that MacIntyre dug deep to make his portrayals real instead of caricatures of every bad man you’ve ever met in your life. With A+ comedic timing, fantastic body language, a knack for dropping the F bomb, and giving his character more layers than a Smith Island cake you find yourself wishing that he had more stage time than he is given.
Humor and true thought provoking facts weave themselves throughout the story. Real human emotion can never be replicated and our need for it will never be replaced. If you are ready for a new take on an age old fear (man vs machine), The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence is a can’t miss for you. If you struggle with sexual situations or the appearance of guns, though it isn’t fired, then this show could be a pass for you. But if that doesn’t apply then it is truly worth making the trip as the play is one of a kind and clearly a labor of love from all involved.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence plays through May 5, 2018 at Silver Spring Stage located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center— 10145 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets call the box office at 301-593-6036 or purchase them online.