I only recall seeing one Matt Charman play during our London years -- THE OBSERVER at the National Theatre. As I recall, we had seen J.T. Rogers' THE OVERWHELMING there shortly before, a powerful work about American innocents abroad in Africa that used current events to spotlight some crucial things about cultural misunderstandings and clashes. THE OBSERVER, about white bureaucrats sent to monitor an election in an African country, seemed flat to me -- earnest, but too journalistic. Now we have his play THE MACHINE, performed in a purpose-built theatre-in-the-round inside the mammoth Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, the first in a series of imports from the Manchester Festival. THE MACHINE dramatizes the famous chess match Armenian-born champion Garry Askparov (Hadley Fraser) and a giant computer, Big Blue, developed by a team of computer scientists led by the Taiwanese, Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee). In a series of flashbacks, the play compares these two driven men from their education until the match. The third player is IBM, eager for the publicity this match will bring the computer giant, particularly after their machines malfunctioned at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. At the end, both Kasparov and Hsu want a rematch. Kasparov can't believe he lost to a computer and Hsu wants another victory for his machine but IBM, which has less faith in their computer, insists on quitting while they are ahead. They got what they wanted out of the event and Big Blue is shipped off to the Smithsonian.
There's a lot of smoke and mirrors in this production, a co-production of the Manchester International Festival and the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, but no personality. For a variety of reasons -- Charman's flat writing, the glitzy production, the size of the space (I was in the 9th row and felt miles away), the boomy amplification -- this is a blah production. Neither central character has any more personality than the computer. Too bad. Kasparov remains a very colorful and contentious figure, a man who moved from chess to political activism. One of the problems of the play is that the defeat by Big Blue did not have a momentous effect on either major character. Kasparov remained the world's leading chess player and Hsu remained an important figure in the computer world (he now works for Microsoft) and wrote the major book on the chess match. Think what an interesting play could have been written about Kasparov (now only 50), who understood that chess could be show business and who, as an activist has tried to take on Putin and was beaten in the Pussy Riot demonstrations. In Charman's play, neither figure has much of a personality. Nor does Kasparov's ever-present mother, despite being played by the usually charismatic Francesca Annis. Another problem may be that we know the outcome. Charman has sports announcers describe the event, but they can't provide suspense to a foregone conclusion. I personally am allergic to the constant, inane chatter of sports announcers -- when I watch sports on tv (rarely, I admit), I turn the sound off, So I found no excitement or suspense in the projected images of these announcers, nor did I see any point of view toward their commentary.
Some Americans will be impressed by Josie Rourke's glitzy, high-tech production, but it pales in comparison to some recent, brilliant British productions, such as Rupert Goold's ENRON and EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON or Marianne Elliott's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME. Rourke seems to be imitating Goold's work, but she doesn't have the same quality of material to work with. All the neon and video can't cover up a flat play. The combination of the lack of vibrant characters, the huge, alienating space and the poor sound quality made this a long 110 minutes. For the sake of honesty, I must say that the audience was less predominantly geriatric than is the norm at the theatre these days -- there seemed to be a lot of chess fans there -- and the production got a warm, prolonged ovation.
THE MACHINE. Park Avenue Armory. September 5, 2013.