The Machine

Theater, Drama
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The Machine
Photograph: Stephanie Berger
The Machine

The Machine. Park Avenue Armory (see Off Broadway). By Matt Charman. Directed by Josie Rourke. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 50mins. No intermission.

The Machine: In brief

Hadley Fraser plays Garry Kasparov in Matt Charman's drama about the Russian grandmaster's famous 1997 chess match against IBM's Deep Blue computer. Josie Rourke directs the U.S. premiere, which costars Francesca Annis and Kenneth Lee.

The Machine: Theater review by David Cote

The key to winning at chess is to stay several moves ahead of your opponent. By that metric, playwright Matt Charman, director Josie Rourke and the British company of The Machine are headed for an unavoidable checkmate. We already know how the story will end: In 1997 New York, Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov (a fiery Hadley Fraser) will lose to IBM supercomputer Deep Blue. We have to sit through six games (give or take, thanks to theatrical compression) to be reminded of this fact. And by relying so heavily on flashbacks and thematic telegraphing, Charman does little to complicate or enrich this cultural footnote, which would ultimately fare better as a BBC TV movie.

Rourke, who recently took the reins at London’s Donmar Warehouse, does her level best to fill the vast and acoustically deadly Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall. This production (which transferred to New York after a run at the Manchester International Festival) features jumbo video monitors high above the chessboard, allowing us to see Kasparov and Deep Blue’s human hands, computer genius Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee), as they advance their pawns with the grim intensity of brain surgeons. The slick and eye-filling mise en scène includes multiple rolling tables with chess games in progress, miles of programming code scrolling onscreen and plenty of loud incidental music. From the temporary stadium seating that fills the Armory, all this flash seems like desperate shorthand for drama and substance.

No amount of window dressing can hide the fact that Charman’s script places research above imagination. He may not try to soften Kasparov, but he also fails to put any terribly interesting speeches in his mouth. When the eleventh-hour Big Message comes—you have to dehumanize yourself to become a winner—we’re bored equally by genius and gadget. The Machine wants to say something resonant about technology, consumerism and post–Cold War Russia, but it comes across like Michael Frayn without the structural elegance, or Tom Stoppard without the wit or intellectual curiosity. Kasparov and Deep Blue may be moving bishops and queens across a mathematically complex field of battle, but they might as well be playing checkers.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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