Theater / Film
GableStage’s ‘Watson’ cast shines, but play needs some work
Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founding chairman and CEO of International Business Machines (IBM), was a brilliantly successful salesman and celebrated businessman for the vast majority of his life.
But as James Grippando’s new play, “Watson,” would have it, the one person Watson could never seem to sell on his vision of himself was the man who would become his successor: Thomas J. Watson Jr.
Now getting its world premiere at GableStage – where it was developed from an idea suggested to Grippando by its artistic director, Joseph Adler – the 90-minute “Watson” is a dense and at times intense examination of the industrialist’s life and values, particularly just before, during and after World War II.
At issue: IBM’s punch card tabulating machines were used by the company’s German subsidiary Dehomag to speed up the processing of census data, which became information utilized to deadly efficiency in the Holocaust.
The play points out that, as incoming president of the International Chamber of Commerce at a 1937 conference in Berlin, Watson took tea with Adolf Hitler and was awarded Nazi Germany’s Merit Cross of the German Eagle with Star, which he didn’t return until 1940, despite widespread criticism. And although he initially denied a demand to ship IBM’s state-of-the-art Model 405 Alphabetizers to Dehomag in 1939, Watson caved under pressure and came up with a loophole to make the machines available.
Involving capitalism and conscience, the story told in “Watson” could have been – should have been – both fascinating and deeply disturbing. Intermittently, director Adler and his fine cast hit those levels. But fashioning a compelling new play is an always-challenging collaborative process, and if “Watson” is to have an ongoing life, the script would benefit from further revisions.
Though Grippando is a prolific and award-winning novelist, this is his first produced play, and the author’s deep narrative roots are evident.
Playing Thomas J. Watson Sr., engaging actor Stephen G. Anthony serves as a charming if unreliable narrator and as the character most in the spotlight. Although the narration serves up myriad facts and offers a perspective on the way Watson saw himself, it comes at the expense of drama. At times, “Watson” feels like a lecture illustrated with scenes that range from compelling and moving to extraneous and dull.
Understand, the cast is really, really good, and what the actors bring to their roles is vital to engaging the audience.
Anthony, the only cast member who plays a single role, smoothly conveys Watson’s contradictions, his unblinking drive, his flaws and virtues. As Thomas Watson Jr., Iain Batchelor is given one note to play – his father’s chief critic – but he does so with fierce focus.
The wonderful Margot Moreland as Jeanette Watson is relegated to wife-and-mother caught between her demanding husband and angry son, though she and Diana Garle bring their strong musical theater pipes to the singing of customized IBM songs, familiar tunes with lyrics altered to extoll the virtues of the company and Watson Sr. However, although the songs make a statement about Watson’s ego and IBM’s corporate culture, they come across as silly speed bumps in the plot.
The luminous Garle shows compelling versatility as Shayna Fein, an American immigrant and Jewish widow; Miss Fuchs, secretary to the head of Dehomag; and Sarah Plonski, a resident of the Warsaw Ghetto whose father is being forced to supply the names of non-practicing Jews to the Nazis.
Peter Wayne Galman conveys the utter loathing that Dehomag head Willy Heidinger felt for Watson, the man who bought out Dehomag’s debt in 1922 and thereafter retained 90 percent control of the business.
As Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s minister of economics, Barry Tarallo charms Watson even as he explains the Nazis’ need for Hollerith machines and a vast number of punch cards. Peter Haig is the picture of loyalty, discretion and efficiency as Edward Burns, an amalgam of Watson’s many male secretaries.
Lyle Baskin’s set, centrally dominated by the IBM motto “THINK” in huge letters, provides offices for Watson and Heidinger on either side, as well as screens onto which Alejandro Martin’s videos of Nazi-era scenes and IBM song lyrics are projected.
Steve Welsh’s lighting palette includes IBM blue, and sound/music designer Matt Corey’s work includes one particularly wry touch, a bit of “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer. Costume designer Emil White, supplying the clothing for about two dozen characters, has come up with suits, uniforms and dresses. But given that the play’s time period runs from 1890 to 1952, some of the looks are era-neutral – an odd effect.
Although GableStage hasn’t done much new play work, the reason “Watson” appealed to Adler is obvious, amid the recent resurgence in anti-Semitism and the way wildly wealthy Americans – people in the mold of Watson – dominate the economy. Certainly, a lesser-known story grounded in historical fact can be transformed into a powerful script. In the case of “Watson,” though, the drama still needs to be punched up.
What: “Watson” by James Grippando
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 22 (no Thanksgiving Day performance)
Where: GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
Cost: $50-$65 (students $15 Thursdays)
More information: 305-445-1119; gablestage.org