entire contents copyright 1997 by Larry Stark
Book by Richard Nelson
based on an idea by Tim Rice
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Music Directed by Paul. S. Katz
Choreography by Kirsten McKinney
Set Design by David Fortuna
Lighting Design by Suzanne Lowell
Sound Design by Derek Holbrook
Costume Design by Jeffrey W. Mello
Production Stage Manager William Casper
Svetlana................. Anne James
Freddie..........Andrew J. DeCorleto
Gregor...............Brian D. Wagner
Nickolai...........Ferit M. Albukrek
Conductor, Keyboard............Paul S. Katz
"Chess" was apparently based on an idea by Tim Rice, who wrote lyrics for the show. It ended up a quite moving drama about Cold War politics exploiting and ruining the lives of two grand master chessplayers and those of the women who love them. The excellent book by Richard Nelson and Tim Rice's lyrics were set to some of the worst empty rock music heard on stage composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, but the SpeakEasy Stage Company's director Paul Daigneault has managed a production that catches fire just before the act break, and burns with incredible fire straight through to the end.
The English never did get the hang of the musical, never understood that it's a play studded with significant songs. ("Trelawney" is exactly that, but it's a rare exception.) And "Chess" partakes of the best and the worst of English theatrical creativity during the last generation. The worst is that some very moving dramatic verses by Tim Rice have been trampled by pedestrian rhythms and singsong-recitative melodies composed at random on a child's xylophone. (The show does have three real songs: a clever, moving duet by two women in love with the same man called "I Know Him So Well"; a biting lamentation on the inhumanity of world politics called "Nobody's Side"; and an almost irrelevant scene-setter called "One Night in Bangkok".)
The best is the serious political commitment that English playwrights have always indulged in, applied in this case to the corruption of a pure love of the game of chess by Commissars and Cold Warriors playing a ruthless international game in which human lives and emotions are irrelevant pawns.
In this story Eileen Nugent plays Florence, a gifted chess-player herself, who is manager and ex-lover of an arrogant, vindictive, egocentric, insultingly boorish American challenger for the chess championship of the world, played by Andrew J. Corleto. In the first act she falls in love with the Russian champion, whose attempted defection to America brings on an avalanche of Soviet and American viciousness in Act two that make thinking about chess impossible.
It is this Russian, played by Michael Brown, who is the hero of the tragedy. Already disillusioned with government pamperings and his cold marriage, his lunge toward freedom and passion succeeds only in calling down Kremlin destruction on everyone he holds dear, and that makes playing the game he loves impossible.
In Act two, Anne James as the Russian's wife is brought on by the Russian Commisar, and she and Eileen Nugent each fight for a chance to bring him happiness. Singing "I Know Him So Well" each recognizes his need for what only the other can provide: passion in one case, security in the other. This late-blooming, tragic triangle is the center of the show. They are the best roles, and the best performances.
By contrast, the American challenger is merely selfishly crafty and willing to do anything to win a chess game, a fortune, or a headline. Andrew J. DeCorleto is not as cobra-cruel as he could be, but he makes much of the song "Pity The Child" --- also in that gritty second Act --- that explains how he got that way.
And then there are the handlers --- JT Turner and Michael Ricca --- who exploit, manipulate, and if necessary torture the Russian and the American for the greater glory of world politics. Turner's Molokov allows an occasional flash of humanity (which may be deception) while Ricca is all bottom-line. And trying to remain sternly and inflexibly impartial as overseer of the game Phil Recta dsiplays an imperious kung-fu dignity.
On press-night, no one seemed finished with Act one, not the writers, the director, nor the actors --- though the cast might well have been distracted by the necessity of squeezing many good lines through those vapidly singsong melodies. Nonetheless, Director Paul Daigneault's work was everywhere in evidence, even in set-changes. A table slides onto center stage approached in the gloom by four figures holding chairs until, on cue, all four drop silently into place with a crisp corps-de-ballet precision. Again and again on David Fortuna's two-level set Suzanne Lowell's lights dim to focus on the eloquent face of Eileen Nugent or Anne James.
Daigneault also juggles eight ensemble members continually stepping forward as precisely detailed bit-parts that flash into full bloom and vanish back into believably bustling crowds. He makes all these characters, with one line or starring roles, into complete people, many of them painfully real. But in doing so he may have neglected sketching in the broader East-West political power game that seems so remote in these post-Soviet years.
Short of shoving half the music into the Charles and doing those sections as verse-drama, Daigneault could do nothing to improve the material, but I'm betting the cast will be getting notes and suggestions every night. It would be interesting to see, on closing night, if Act one attains anything like the well- controlled fire that Act two did opening night.