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Robin Wagner's Chess, at the Imperial Theater in New York City, is your basic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl musical romance. The boy, Anatoly, is a Russian chess champion; the girl, Florence, is the orphaned daughter of a Hungarian freedom fighter, now a naturalized American and acting as the second (sparring partner, coach) of Freddie, the Russian's bratty U.S. rival. Florence leaves Freddie for Anatoly after the young lovers have sung a duet in a Bangkok restaurant ("Terrace Duet" is the generic title in the program), and then Anatoly, victor in the match, defects. In the second act there is a rematch in Budapest, where the K.G.B. arranges for Anatoly to confront his abandoned wife, Svetlana, and for Florence to meet a crippled prisoner who may be her father, Gregor. Florence and Anatoly reprise, with anguish, their love due"You and I," and then Florence, tragically alone, belts out "Anthem," with which Anatoly had brought down the curtain for Act I.

The machinery is all in place and functions smoothly. The three principals Judy Kuhn, David Carroll and Philip Casnoff do all that they can, vocally and theatrically, to keep us tuned to their channel; although I never did feel tempted to bolt my seat (as I had done, two weeks earlier, to escape the achingly m isbegotten Mad), neither did I ever get swept away. My toe never even started to tap. Nor, though I'm an easy cry and everyone was working hard to induce lachrymal secretions, did Chess jerk any tears from me. The reason for this lack of affect is not far to seek. A wise consumer who reads labels will notice that Chess is "based on an idea" by its lyricist, Tim Rice, while credit for the book goes to Richard Nelson, a professional playcobbler responsible for new adaptations and translations of plays by Chekhov, Beaumarchais and Moliere, and plays of his own about Rip Van Winkle and Pinocchio. Nelson has manufactured a play from Rice's idea that has many of the qualities of life: complexity, animation, bilateral symmetry of plot. But if you prick it, it doesn't bleed. If the play could be disencumbered of Rice's greeting-card lyrics, and if the unmemorable score (by Benny Andersson and Bjbrn Ulvaeus, components of the Swedish rock group ABBA) was redeployed as background music, the result might more nearly approach the condition of drama-or, more likely, its cogs and gears might be even more obtrusively noticeable.

To carp about the mechanical nature of Chess's dramaturgy, however, is to miss its central excellence, which is the mechanical ingenuity of the physical staging. In a show so bereft of human dancing that one marvels that credit is given for "dance staging," all the kinetic energy is generated by the continual gyrations of the componctents of the set, for whose design Robin Wagner is credited. The whirligigging of the set's multiple monolithic towers -a kaleidoscopic Stonehenge-is of a speed and intricacy that would lead one to suppose only a computer could have coordinated its constant transformations. In fact, I am told that the computer system developed for this purpose couldn't cope, and all the magic was the work of stagehands, whose captain, stage manager Alan Hall, ought rightfully to share over-the-title billing with Wagner.

Chess is by no means the first musical to star its set; Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera were similarly dehumanized; but the Chess set's pieces are waltzed about with a choreographic freedom that leads me to hope that Trevor Nunn and Robin Wagner's next musical collaboration may dispense with any vestigial human presence and simply present a history of the evolution of clocks and watches, set to music by Philip Glass.

One of the pleasures of morphology is to discover an underlying resemblance between seemingly disparate entities, such as potatoes, tobacco, belladonna and the other members of the wide and deadly nightshade family. A similar structural identity links Broadway's gargantuan and costly Chess with an Off Broadway melodrama produced by the New York Theatre Workshop, Robert Litz's Domino. Domino concerns the changing of the guard in a nameless Central American country from a corrupt right-wing dictatorship to a corrupt left-wing dictatorship, a transition being stage-managed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The story is schematically told on a bare set with seven actors, two of them in the multiple roles of (Hispanic) Man and (Hispanic) Woman, both of whom are constantly outsmarting the gringos in B'rer Rabbit style: kidnapping an obnoxious, golf-obsessed banker and holding him ransom (some light comedy in the interrogation and torture scene), blowing up an airplane and wreaking other revenges it would be unfair to reveal. Scene by scene, Domino holds the attention. The dialogue is snappy, and Dan Butler, in the role of the C.I.A. station chief, is an epitome of buttondown-collar villainy. Short, smug and sinister, Butler has the makings of an American von Stroheim: a face you love to hate.

Butler's wonderful awfulness isn't enough, however, to make Domino work. It's not a matter of whether one agrees with its political premises. In many respects , I do. But its dramatic premises are flawed -and in exactly the way that the plot of Chess is flawed. Both posit a world in which the secret services, the C.I.A. and K.G.B., are the puppet masters of all events, against whose manipulations all other mortals-chess champions, generals, revolutionaries-are mere pawns, whose actions are destined to serve the ends of their secret masters. This is not only a doubtful proposition with regard to the real world, where the C.I.A. and K.G.B., though certainly unprincipled, are often demonstrably as stupid as our visible leaders; it is also a poor basis for storytelling, since it requires the good guys to be wimps, dupes and helpless victims. The politically inert may derive some comfort from supposing that City Hall can't be fought, especially when lago is the Chief of Police, but there's precious little drama to be had from such supposings.
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Title Annotation:Imperial Theater, New York
Author:Disch, Thomas M.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:May 21, 1988
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