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THEATER REVIEW: "The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence"

“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 is a line heard several times in Madeleine George’s time-jumping “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, a meditation on the sometimes maddening nexus between technology and humans.

You may say it to yourself a time or two in the course of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play expertly directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, on the boards through Dec. 6 at Moxie Theatre.

The plot takes place in three centuries and involves three expert actors playing multiple parts. Each actor plays different incarnations of characters named Eliza, Merrick or Watson.

The play opens in the 21st century, where computer genius Eliza (Jo Anne Glover) is complaining to her humanoid bot creation Watson (similar to the Watson computer that famously beat Ken Jennings on “Jeopardy” in 2011) about Merrick (Eddie Yaroch), the husband she has just left because he was too needy. She praises Watson’s ability to listen and respond soothingly rather than with rage and jealousy (sometimes with the quote that opens this review), which sets up Ms. George’s point about the neatness of technology and the messiness of human interaction.

This Merrick is an attorney, currently running for city auditor on an anti-government platform. He meets another Watson (this one named Josh) when the affable geek from the Dweeb Team comes to fix Merrick’s ailing computer. Impressed with his technical ability, Merrick will offer Josh $1500 to tail Eliza, whom Merrick suspects of trying to sabotage his campaign.

But with the donning of a large coat and the rolling appearance from offstage of a tea cart on wheels, Josh Watson becomes Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame, unexpectedly visited by the 19th-century Eliza, who complains of mysterious puncture wounds on both arms. Eliza is, of course, looking for Holmes, but becomes almost enamored of Watson.

It goes on like that, leaping back and forth in time, marked by costume designer Desiree Hatfield-Buckley’s simple but effective costume changes and played out on a turntable set which leaps centuries with the help of simple props and the terrific lighting and sound designs of Christopher Renda and David Scott, respectively.

It’s easy to get a bit lost in this talky play, but the actors are so good, the game such fun and the words so right (and often funny) that the best advice is to relax and let yourself be carried along for the ride.

Lang gets the best characters, and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of that fact. From a bot to the sexy dweeb to Sherlock’s sidekick to the man who knows what Alexander Graham Bell *really* said when that first telephone connection was made in 1876 (“because I was there”), Lang is a wow.

But Glover’s Elizas equally demonstrate the messiness of human connection, and Yaroch portrays the less sterling human qualities in his twitchy and all-too-human Merricks.

I think it’s safe to say that technology is both the boon and the bane of modern existence, offering both the startling ability to do and find things quickly and an unprecedented capability to wreak havoc without even leaving home. Watson and his friends offer us an entertaining way to consider these issues.

The details

“The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence” plays through December 6, 2015 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard.

Thursday at 7 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (858) 598-7620 or www.moxietheatre.com