Three radically different plays coexist in The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence. In the Victorian Era, Dr. John Watson stalks a misogynistic husband. In a time that resembles our own, a young woman attempts to create artificial intelligence companions. Amid the leaps through time and space, there's a side plot about a blustering libertarian mounting a wrathful campaign to become a city auditor, while pitiably pining for his ex-wife.
But the maze of plots is less daunting than it sounds. Onstage at the CoHo Theater, Madeleine George's play has come to life in a tender and uproarious production. It's a spirited meditation on technology's corrosive effect on humanity in which director Philip Cuomo and the cast of three nimbly dance through the disparate time periods.
That dance begins in the first scene as Eliza (Sarah Ellis Smith), who works in the artificial intelligence industry, chats with Watson (Eric Martin Reid), a mustachioed sad sack. Watson speaks in an awkward, apathetic voice, and it takes a minute to realize that he's actually an android. Watson is not only Eliza's servant, but her emotional shield from the world, including her insufferable ex-husband, Frank (Gavin Hoffman), an aspiring city auditor.
Eliza's determination to create a new generation of AI "companions" and Frank's fevered political ambitions could have provided enough material for the play. Yet The Curious Case not only finds time to chronicle a blissful yet uneasy romance between Eliza and a blandly cheerful tech repairman (also played by Reid), but also flashes back to the Victorian era. There, Reid plays Dr. Watson, while Smith and Hoffman play a couple entwined in a sinister mystery.
As the production's sterile, gray-walled set design suggests, each act deals with technology-induced isolation. The dual-era narrative allows the play to riff on the idea from two radically different vantage points. In the Victorian section of the play, the husband played by Hoffman dreams of replacing his wife with a soulless, obedient replica, while years later, the repairman Eliza falls in love with becomes so meticulous in his charm that he may as well be a calculator.
The actors dexterously navigate each leap through time with dizzying costume changes and effortless switches between American and English accents, and still find time to embrace the story's levity. There's also a sense of mischief that manifests throughout the narrative. In one disarmingly sweet scene, Frank and Eliza sit on a black leather couch and have a touching heart-to-heart. Not that much later, the play runs alongside Dr. Watson as he attempts to chase down Hoffman's character with hilarious obviousness.
It's ironic that a play about characters who live such deadening lives ends up being deeply entertaining. The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence is a story of people clawing their way out of lonely stupors, and ultimately learning to gaze beyond the comfort of those gray walls.
SEE IT: The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence plays at the Coho Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St., cohoproductions.org. 7:30 pm. Through Sept. 30. $25-$32.