Chicago Theatre Review
A Nudge in the Right Direction
The (Curious Case of the)Watson Intelligence – Theatre Wit
Madeleine George wears many hats. A wise, sharply intelligent writer of books for young readers, she’s the author o2008’s Looks and 2012’s The Difference Between You and Me. She’s also the playwright who penned the fascinating “Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England,” produced to great acclaim just last year in Chicago. Theater Wit’s latest production, a relatively new offering by Ms. George, was a 2014 nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Following its short run at New York Center’s Mainstage Theatre, produced by Playwrights Horizon, the comic drama earned the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Obie Award for Performance. With a format, not unlike many of Tom Stoppard’s plays, it bops back and forth between the past and present and features three marvelous actors all playing multiple characters and all of whom share the same three names.
George’s clever, whimsical play is filled with surprising twists and turns. It involves variations of several women named Eliza and a collection of men, some called Merrick and others the titular Watson(s). The plot is far too involved and convoluted to describe; it really must be experienced to fully be appreciated. However, know that there’s a Victorian Eliza who’s married to a possessive, mad inventor named Merrick. Suspicious of a series of unexplained wounds on her arm, she seeks Sherlock Holmes’ help and ends up sharing her troubles with the sleuth’s well-intentioned, Dr. Watson. Then there’s the present-day Eliza, who’s a noted, scientific genius. She’s created a very accommodating, masculine, Siri-like supercomputer called Watson (named after the founder of IBM), who’s known for beating two “Jeopardy” champions, and with whom she’s fallen in love. Until recently this Eliza was coupled with Merrick, a sleazy, contemporary businessman with an intense temper, who’s running for Auditor. He’s contracted a computer repairman from the Dweeb Team, coincidentally named Watson, to spy on Eliza, his ex. In the course of following and ultimately confronting Eliza, she and Watson have fallen in love and begin carrying on a torid affair. Then, added to this jumble of Elizas, Merricks and Watsons, we meet Mr. Watson, the lab assistant of Alexander Graham Bell. The plot is filled with parallel situations and similar characters that both baffle and blow the mind.
Talented Jeremy Wechsler has briskly directed this perplexing, labyrinthine play with the skill of a master circus juggler. Aided by Joe Schermoly’s flexible, continually shifting scenic design of turntables, revolving walls and panels that open and close on cue, the play flows beautifully through time and space. Mike Durst’s terrific lighting helps direct the audience’s focus where needed, as changes in history and locale occur within the shadows. Crystal Jovae Mazur has met the challenge by providing her actors with an array of appropriate costumes and accessories, allowing for seemingly easy, super-fast changes.
The cast is simply sensational. Kristina Valad-Viars, a valiant Mrs. Frank in the recent Writers Theatre production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” admirably masters the demands of playing each Eliza. She makes a strong, shrewd, sassy young woman, dominated by her intellect, but swayed by powerful wants and needs that she must address. Ms. Valad-Viars nicely holds her own, both in the modern arena, as well as in the primarily male-dominated Victorian world. Joe Dempsey, so adept in such varied productions as Northlight’s “The Mousetrap” and Victory Gardens’ “Samsara,” makes easy play of the various incarnations of Merrick. Whether playing the frenetic Victorian inventor or the obsessed contemporary businessman, Mr. Dempsey is strong and excellent. Joe Foust, with a resume that can’t begin to reflect the scope of this accomplished actor’s talent, is a veritable chameleon playing four different characters named Watson. The one unifying quality Mr. Foust brings to each role is his natural charisma. He’s just as likable as the bumbling Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ fictional friend and sidekick, as he is playing Eliza’s geeky computer expert. As the robotic artificial intelligence who has charmed Eliza, Mr. Foust’s evokes laughs with his often heard reply: “I don’t think I understand what you mean, but I’d like to. Can you give me a nudge in the right direction?”
This delightful play is definitely for the thinking theatergoer. No light entertainment here, we have a canny, crafty, cerebral exercise being played out in a series of captivating, interrelated scenes, told by characters who may or may not be extensions of one another. Sharply delineated portrayals, crisp, snappy dialogue and exuberant direction bring Madeleine George’s play to life, in a wonderful follow-up to Theater Wit’s thought-provoking “Mr. Burns.” Launching their new season, this production is more than a promising nudge in the right direction.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 4-November 14 by Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.