Watson (The Full Monty's John Ellison Conlee), the trusty companion of Sherlock Holmes,investigates mysterious marks on the arm of a troubled woman (Amanda Quaid) married to a genius inventor (David Constabile). Meanwhile, Watson (Ellison Conlee again), a humanoid computer based on IBM's Jeopardy-winning technology, engages in Siri-style chatter with the woman (Quaid) who helped build him, while Watson (Ellison Conlee), a computer repairman, follows the same woman at the request of her jealous estranged husband (Constabile). And then Watson (you guessed it: Ellison Conlee), the assistant to telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, gives a radio interview about his invention.
Confused? You still will be after seeing The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, a thoughtful and ambitious new play by Madeleine George in which these four different plot lines all interweave and overlap in puzzling ways. Are they meant to be refracted versions of one story, nested together Cloud Atlas-style? Do they exist on the same timeline? In alternate realities? Or are they just stories that intersect on the plane of imagination, a pure exercise in theater?
Those questions don't seem to be of much interest to George, who uses all this theatrical showmanship as window dressing for the play's jumble of themes about proximity, technology, and love. When Watson the computer repair guy falls for the woman he was hired to spy on (who also happens to be the inventor of Watson, the computer), the pair spend plenty of time pondering Life's Big Questions, often arriving at neatly quotable answers as though they're leading a book club devoted to the play. ''Connection isn't elegant, or precise, or rational,'' says Watson (the Graham-Bell sidekick) in his radio interview. ''But it's our fate to be bound up with one another, isn't it? We are all born insufficient, and must look to others to supplement our strength.''
No matter how the storylines are supposed to link up, they serve one important function: giving the talented cast a chance to show off their mastery of quick-change character shifts. As they swap accents and costumes at a breakneck pace, each actor gives a handful of finely tuned performances, each carefully differentiated with inflections and mannerisms. (In one bravura scene, Constabile makes a near-magical transformation from modern-day schlub to Victorian scientist within a few sentences.) Watching them, it's easy to get drawn into the play's knot of ideas and romantic intrigue. Just don't count on being able to unravel it at the end. B–(Tickets: www.playwrightshorizons.org)