Watching Watson, And Wondering Where Culpability Begins And Ends

Watson, playing at Gablestage until this December 22nd, replaced the show originally scheduled for this slot in the company’s season. Director Joseph Adler, who also helped playwright James Grippando develop the show, felt that its story was especially urgent, and it doesn’t take any great leaps of the imagination to see why.

Though the play makes no direct reference to modern times or our current political circumstances, the bleeding subtext implicit in a play that explores the risk of kowtowing to a corrupt political leader is beating just under the surface. The “Watson” of the title is Thomas J. Watson, founder of still-dominant technology company IBM, and the show focuses on his and IBM’s role in providing the Third Reich with machines that were used to more efficiently catalog Jews and corral them for slaughter.

Some theatergoers who prefer brighter subject matter (again, e.g. my mother) may be put off by the idea of yet another Holocaust play, especially if they managed to make it to Gablestage’s last season closer. Yet there are so many angles from which one can approach the matter, so many people at least a little at fault, so many ways in to just one gargantuan tragedy that it’s not a subject apt to get old. Perhaps, in fact, we should never be done talking about it, just in case such silence would allow it to happen again.

Grippando is new to theatre but has made a name for himself as a crime and thriller writer, and though this is his first play, he shows an intriguing grasp of the theatrical form. Watson begins the play by addressing the audience directly and offers us further monologues and asides throughout, and the play moves smoothly across time and space to create an engaging tableau. All of the play’s supporting actors (Peter W. Galman, Peter Haig, Diana Garle, Margot Moreland, and Barry Tarallo) are tasked with playing multiple roles, and their versatility is essential to making the playwork.

Stephen G. Anthony plays Watson, a likable, charismatic, and intelligent man, who also just happened to find himself in the middle of an impossible dilemma. I think, too, that he remains a relatively honorable man despite this one life-shattering mistake. After all, it’s impossible to know: would Watson not send over his machinery have actually prevented any of the turmoil?

The character who persuades Watson to go against his initial impulse and do so, says no, Hitler was just going to build his own machines if he had to, would find some other way, but there’s no way of knowing whether that way would have been quite so horrendously efficient.

Oddly, I actually do not blame Watson for his indiscretion as harshly as his rebellious son, a feisty Iain Batchelor as Thomas J. Watson, Jr does, and the conflict between the two regarding the matter often felt a bit exaggerated and forced.

Watson frames his decision as less about his personal gain than about the interests of his company and his stockholders, an excuse that does make a certain amount of sense. Yet, if everyone has such excuses, then who’s left to stop the next massacre?

The flimsiness of this excuse is furthered illustrated in an interesting scene depicting a rabbi who provides a list of non-practicing Jews to the Nazis to ensure that he and his family would be safe from his ravages. Is someone who did something that led more directly to harm when he and his loved ones were in immediate danger more or less culpable than someone like Watson, who made a decision that led less immediately to evil from his cushy white-collar office?

The relationship between Watson and one of his long-time employees, crucial to a moment near the end of the play, could have been more developed to give said moment more of an impact on us in the audience, but this is a play still in development, and such kinks could easily be ironed out in future drafts. Far more memorable than its flaws were the questions Watson raises, which keep me wondering even now.

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