Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Playwrights Horizons

Review | The [curious case of the] Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George | Directed by Leigh Silverman | Playwrights Horizons

Reference to Sherlock Holmes, computers, time travel and mysterious goings-on — it all sounds wild and wacky, but it’s pretentious and not clever.

The play weaves in and out about several Watsons, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson, who, in a nearby room, received Bell’s first telephone call, IBM’s natural-language-processing supercomputer, Watson (named after the founder of IBM),  and the “real” contemporary man in the play, a computer repairer Watson who’s just a nice guy.

In the first scene, the best part of the play, Eliza (Amanda Quaid), a computer genius, converses with her creation, Watson, an outstanding computer language processor.  Like the inventor Spalanzani who falls in love with the wind-up doll he creates in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, Eliza pretty much falls in love with her mechanical creation — how not, since she made him the way she wanted him?

So that … when she encounters a real, ordinary guy named Watson, who (played by the same actor) looks just like her pet computer and who says all the right things (programmed computer empathy and Elton John all in one), she falls fast in love with him too.  It’s a love triangle since this “real” Watson was sent by Eliza’s estranged husband to spy on her.

Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson seeks to rescue a woman from a super-over-possessive and controlling husband, while Alexander Graham Bell’s Watson is involved in a parallel combination rescue operation/love triangle.  All Watsons are played by John Ellison Conlee who’s amusing as a friendly computer programmed with empathetic responses but totally miscast as a lover– worse, multiple lovers.  The contemporary love scenes between Eliza, played with charm by Quaid, and Watson the computer fix-it man are as incongruous as Titania’s drugged passion for Bottom with his donkey head in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but here just clumsy, not magical.

David Costabile plays Merrick, the self-involved, over-technical but underneath it all loving husband in the triangles:  his skill as an actor is apparent as he tries to make several pseudo-intellectual soliloquies he’s required to deliver interesting but it’s a thankless task.

The Watson Intelligence is like Charles Ludlum’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, seen recently in a wonderful production in Sag Harbor — but without the wit, variety, or imaginative zaniness, or Irma Vep’s tour de force wondrously instant changes of costume and character; here these are easy and transparent, and sloppily carried out.  After the initial “conversation” between Eliza and her computer, there’s little here to smile about, and much to yawn over.

The [curious case of the] Watson Intelligence plays at Playwrights Horizons on Theater Row, West 42nd Street in Manhattan, through December 29, 2013.

Review | Completeness by Itamar Moses | Directed by Pam MacKinnon | Playwrights Horizons

Itamar Moses catches today’s lingo like butterflies.  Completeness is about young people, in the Computer Science and Biology Departments of a university, talking about love, molecular biology and computer science, while going through a variety of partners.  It’s good to have a play about people who are intelligent and care about their work.

Elliot is a Computer Science Assistant Professor (or thereabouts) who — beyond his sleepy-eyed cool — is dedicated to solving THE problem in Computer Science, “The Salesman’s Problem” — and if you see the play, he will tell you all about its complexities.  He’s so articulate you feel he knows everything, except how to resolve the conflict between his anxiety about commitment (described in a hilariously hyperbolic monolog that’s a high point of the play) and a yearning to settle in with “the one” or “love” or whatever.

At the start, he’s in the process of ushering Lauren out of his bedroom and, in little time, ushering Molly in:  she’s a grad student in molecular biology, and this seems promising because she’s as passionate about identifying a difficult-to-isolate protein as he is about “The Salesman’s Problem.”   She’s a bit of a clickety-clackety run-on speaker — but that’s her enthusiasm, and anyhow he finds her adorable.  Work is one level of existence, love’s another – and they both have had an eye on each other which adds up to it doesn’t take long to get naked and into bed.

Elliot sets about developing an algorithm to aid Molly’s scientific project.  I found that really great:  not only are they each intellectually engaged with their own work, they can work together!  The playwright tries taking it to a more generalized level:  that since he’s a Computer Scientist and she’s a Molecular Biologist, they complement each other not only as individuals but also in some broad sense of a union of life and mathematical abstraction. But that last comes across more like a sound bite;  it makes the play easy to talk about, but isn’t fully realized.

Molly ditches her older Advisor/Professor in favor of Elliot (you can be sure the professor isn’t alone for long), and then, when Elliot and Molly are driven apart by their individual commitment angst, various partnerings arise — fast.  Inner anguish and jealousy are expressed but never trouble the play’s bright, witty, surface.  Whatever the characters are going through, we’re having a good time.

The characters themselves question why their generation is so fast about getting to sex, and so distant from commitment.  There’s a resonant truth in the line about partnering, “We don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” an issue for this generation I’ve read about in the news.  Promiscuity in this play doesn’t seem to be making anybody happy but it makes for a lot of amusing lines and situations which keep the audience happy.

In spite of all the lengths they go to explain themselves, though, and the fine acting, the characters seem types, though amusingly recognizable types.  Why does this pair bond or not bond?  We don’t sense it deeply, it could go either way.  And it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

The success of Completeness owes a lot to the excellent cast and brisk direction.  Karl Miller plays the oh so sharp Elliot with intelligence and perfect timing, and makes the part his own.  Whether about love or molecules, Aubrey Dollar spins Molly’s recitatives almost as fast as Figaro in the Barbara of Seville.  Meredith Forlenza shows range as three avatars of contemporary young women including Lauren, the one with residual romantic expectations.  Brian Avers plays with great appeal both the older professor who’s stuck on bench science and resists computer modeling, and the graduate student who sees through him.  They are all fun to watch.

Completeness is comic fluff – not a “must” but it’s enjoyable.

Completeness plays at Playwrights Horizons on Wests 42nd Street in Manhattan through September 25th.

Review | Go Back To Where You Are by David Greenspan | Directed by Leigh Silverman | Playwrights Horizons | Peter Jay Sharp Theater

… transformations …

The setting, the deck of Claire’s beach house around Montauk, on the East End of Long Island, is delightful and the play is pleasant in a summery way well into it, with sun shining on the deck, the ocean near by, and a touch of the magic of time travel. Lunch is being prepared, conversations swirl, tensions emerge among the characters to keep things interesting. Claire’s a successful actress while her friend and fellow actress, Charlotte, has to scramble for parts. Tom’s a successful producer, on hand because he’s working with Claire on her next play, but he and his partner Malcolm are at odds because of Tom’s compulsive promiscuity.

Then, in a scene shift, we meet Passalus, who once lived as an actor in Ancient Greece: now God (why not Zeus?) sends him emphatically, and as way to earn his release from purgatory, to our contemporary world to straighten out the relationships of this particular Hamptons gathering.

To be able to fulfill his assignment, Passalus arrives on Claire’s deck disguised in the form of a chatty 72 year old woman with an English accent -– nobody’s sure where she came from or why but the point isn’t pushed –- English accents are so protective. David Greenspan, a brilliant performer, and inevitably hilarious at playing women, plays Passalus in this, his play.

But instead of simply doing what God commanded, Passalus falls in love: with Claire’s son, Wally, a pleasant young man but, brooding over a lost love, a determined loner. But for Passalus to be able to take long walks on the beach with Wally, and to woo him, the guise of an old lady just won’t cut the mustard. Passalus changes himself into the male actor he really is — or was back then in Ancient Greece — and, as needed, transforms himself back into the old lady.  Greenspan changes from male to female and back again at the drop of a hat –- in mid sentence, no costume change needed for him to be convincing. So there’s lots of fun here with confused identities.

Abruptly, the play becomes emotionally intense as Passalus, smarting from Wally’s rejection, grieves mightily, about Wally and, more generally, about the transformations of time — becoming an aging, wrinkled actor whose lost his looks, lost his appeal and, as he sees it, is fated to be unloved and alone.  We’re not prepared for the shift in tone, and the emotions seem too raw.

Then, though nothing happens to explain it, Wally changes his mind and we’re given to think that Wally and Passalus will live happily ever after — or at least for a reasonably long time.  And almost everybody else’s relationship problems are resolved, too; Tom, formerly driven to promiscuity, will henceforth be faithful.  Really?  How?  We don’t see it. And almost out of the blue (there was an early, unexplained phone call but that seems like a mechanical plant) we learn that Claire will be dead of cancer in a year.  Huh? That resolution is unsatisfying because it’s so arbitrary – i.e., why did the playwright do that when he could have done this or the other?

In alternating between Passalus the actor from ancient Greece acting as a contemporary man, and the 72 year old English Lady, Greenspan pulls off a fine tour de force;  he’s such a fascinating performer that you watch him even when he’s in the background and not part of the action.  Among the other fine performances, Lisa Banes is wonderful as Claire – timing, wit, drama, stage presence, she has everything and it’s a privilege to see her.

Miscellaneous:  Speaking of transformations … I wondered why Greenspan names his character Passalus?  Looking up the word, I found it’s the name of one of a pair of thievish scamps in Classical mythology, the Kerkopes brothers, who for punishment, are transformed into wrinkled, old, monkey-men, as in Ovid’s long poem of transformations, Metamorphoses — and as Passalus feels he’s become in his moment of agonized despair in the play.   If that not enough of an explanation, it’s also the name of a certain horned beetle.   P. S. The playwright Agathon wrote in the 5th Century B.C.

In one of the breaks from sheer play to sly communications with the audience, Passalus/Greenspan suggests that Go Back To Where You Are may be a sketch, not a play, and I can see why he entertains the thought.

Go Back To Where You Are plays at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater on West 42nd Street through May 1.

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