Whatever you do, don’t leave at intermission. The first act of Cándido Tirado’s new play is entertaining, but the second is liable to leave you gobsmacked. Set in New York City’s Washington Square Park on a sweltering summer day, the action centers on a trio of chess hustlers who make their living by luring in weaker players—“fish” in con-man parlance—and persuading them to place bets on games. On this particular day, a naive young man called Rey (Raul Castillo) comes to the park to pay back a debt his uncle has incurred, but the hustlers manage to get the nephew on the hook, too.
As long as there’s something important at stake, games can be fascinating to watch onstage, thanks to their built-in rules, shifting power dynamic, and clear winners and losers. In what initially feels like a stretch, Tirado connects the hustlers to humankind’s long, sorry history of preying on the innocent. Characters continually interrupt the game to deliver diatribes on genocide and dispossession—speeches that are well-written but don’t feel entirely relevant.
Until, that is, we learn that Rey is a survivor of the bloody civil war in Guatemala, which has left him more volatile and more hell-bent on revenge than he seems at first. As an alternative to Rey’s self-destructive eye-for-an-eye-ism, Tirado gives us the experienced wisdom of an onlooker and onetime chess master who survived the Holocaust. He’s played by Howard Witt, whose powerfully moving performance is an emblem of decency and tenderness.