Man vs. The Machine in Chess Duel at Park Avenue Armory
By Steven Suskin
It's Man vs. Machine, to the nth degree, in Matt Charman's The Machine at the Park Avenue Armory.
The "man" is Garry Kasparov, the Russian World Chess Champion who in 1997 played a much-heralded match of six games against the IBM computer "Deep Blue." The Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Armory has been transformed into a 916-seat, four-sided arena with a chess board at center and the action exploding around it (and on eight jumbo closed-circuit screens above).
The Kasparov/Deep Blue match was a cultural landmark at the time, garnering front-page coverage as it unfolded over the course of a week from a television studio atop the Equitable Building in Manhattan. Some commentators called it "a Greek tragedy," which suggests the inherent dramatic potential. Charman, a 30-something British playwright whose Regrets was produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club in the spring of 2012, chooses to concentrate not on the tragedy of the Grandmaster but on the duel between Kasparov (Hadley Fraser) and the Taiwanese computer genius behind Deep Blue, Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee). This turns out to be a canny idea, as the play intersperses action from the six games with developmental flashbacks examining the development of the two socially-awkward young geniuses. The play culminates not only in the climactic final game but in an intellectual duel between the two men.
If Kasparov and Hsu were well-matched, so are the actors playing the roles. Fraser is a familiar player in the London musical world, having played both Marius and Javert in Les Misérables as well as starring on Broadway in the 2007 Boublil/Schönberg musical The Pirate Queen. Lee is a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and the American Conservatory Theatre, with numerous regional credits. Both handily project outsized characters and draw us into the drama. Sharing the spotlight, as Kasparov's mother Clara, is veteran Francesca Annis, whose long career encompasses stage and screen. (Best known for her award-winning role as Lillie Langtry in the 1978 mini-series "Lillie" and her nude Lady Macbeth in Roman Polanski's 1971 film, she has appeared on Broadway in two Hamlets: as Ophelia to Nicol Williamson in Tony Richardson's 1969 production, and as Gertrude to Ralph Fiennes in Jonathan Kent's 1995 production.)
Director Josie Rourke, who has followed Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage as the newly-appointed artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London, does a fine job in her New York debut. The play, which could be talky and slow, given that it is at heart about a chess match, explodes into action, with Rourke ably managing a cast of 14 (plus eight young chess players in one scene). Lucy Osborne's scenery and especially Mark Henderson's lights play a major part, as does the use of video (by Andrzej Goulding), which not only enhances the visuals but adds focus to the chess board during the games. Mention should also be made of the stylized choreography by Jonathan Watkins, which heightens the brilliance of Kasparov. (When making his best moves, Fraser seems to literally dance on the chess board.)
Does a knowledge of chess enhance appreciation of the play? Probably not, although I suppose it helps. (Having spent several years shepherding my child — a mid-level ex-player — to chess matches across the country, I am relatively familiar with the game. I was astonished to discover, though, that I've spent countless hours with one of the main characters in The Machine: Joel Benjamin, a chess wizard hired by IBM to help guide the scientists in programming Deep Blue, who was one of my son's coaches.)
The Machine, which premiered in July at the Manchester International Festival, is a joint commission of the Manchester Festival, the Donmar Warehouse, and the Park Avenue Armory. This is the first play commissioned by the Armory, which shares artistic director Alex Poots with the Manchester Festival, and it is an exciting fit at the newly-renovated historic venue on East 66th Street.
As a follow-up, the Armory has announced that next June it will import their second co-commission with the Manchester Festival, the highly-acclaimed Kenneth Branagh Macbeth.
The Machine continues performances at the Armory through Sept. 18.
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