“Man versus Machine. That’s how we’re billing it!” The tortuous contradictions that motivate British playwright Matt Charman’s high-intensity The Machine are summed up by this confession. In 1997, when Manhattan chess wunderkind Garry Kasparov played a match against IBM supercomputer “Deep Blue,” the game was indeed pitched to its global audience as a test of mankind’s dignity before its increasingly sophisticated widgets. In Charman’s dramatic retelling of the event, directed by Donmar Warehouse artistic director Josie Rourke, we’re meant to take a more wizened view. The frustrated young publicist who blurts out these lines is attempting to clue Kasparov into the bigger reality: The real game being played isn’t over the chessboard, but between the online media stream and the global network of potential customers for IBM hardware and software. Mankind’s dignity isn’t on the line; stock prices are.
The play follows both Kasparov (Hadley Fraser) and Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee), the engineer who designed Deep Blue and manipulates the chess pieces on its behalf. Both, we learn, lived their entire lives for this moment, Kasparov as a boy wonder who became the youngest chess champion in history, and Hsu as an ambitious computer geek who let no light into his life except to serve his ambitions. The social conditions of their hunger to be “the best”—Kasparov in a financially insecure Soviet Russia, Hsu an American immigrant—make clear that that other machine, the capitalist one, made pawns out of them long before their fateful game. Though Kasparov is the more colorful figure, the single-minded Hsu is meant to be the tragic hero who fails to see until the last moments that his triumph never belonged to him.
The producers of the outsized performance space at Park Avenue Armory have been staging the “man vs. machine” debate for some time, setting up nonhuman theatrical spectacles (Heiner Goebbels’s Stifters Dinge and Ryoji Ikeda’s the transfinite) in between their people spectacles (the RSC’s simulacrum of the Globe Theatre), so the choice of Charman’s play fits this sensibility. Unlike these other events, though, The Machine’s mainstream theatrical ambitions could easily have fit a Broadway proscenium. But whether the Armory is improved by the play, the play is most certainly improved by the Armory.
Designer Lucy Osborne gives the drama’s central irony its spatial equivalent. The chessboard at the center of the stage is surrounded by four Jumbotrons projecting (thanks to video designer Andrzej Goulding) to audiences on all four sides of the playing space. A long table stands behind the chessboard for the TV announcers who cover the proceedings. Rourke whirls the action around the playing area, taking every opportunity to draw a circle. Literally and figuratively, what looks like the center of gravity is actually the excuse for the spectacle.
The cast of The Machine, as though heroically committed to the play’s concept, are effective but never virtuosic. You can always take your eyes off them. Fraser is manic, athletic, and insistently likeable even in his portrayal of Kasparov’s narcissism, while Lee brings the right amount of tightly wired pathos to poor Hsu. Francesca Annis plays Kasparov’s imposing matriarch, overcommitted perhaps to her character’s posture, but alternately tart or wounded when she has to be. Lucille Sharp, as the publicist whose patience wears thin, thankfully manages to draw a recognizable and complex woman from a figure whose main role is to be more knowing than anyone else onstage. Still, the one actor who managed to pull my attention even when the lights were especially bleeping and whirring was Brian Sills, who plays another chessmaster hired by IBM to teach the computer strategy. Perhaps because his part internalizes the conflicting motivations split among the rest of the players (love of the game plus desire for revenge plus a mediocrity’s gravitation to security), Sills gets to throw a Method actor’s meat behind the play’s one genuinely round character.
The Machine, in short, is an anti-capitalist tragedy that spends half its time looking like a sci-fi melodrama and the other half like a biopic. Charman and Rourke milk all three genres—the moralizing of the first, the nail-biting energy of the second, and the sentimentality of the third—to the tipping point of excess, but the combination keeps stagnation at bay. It’s a testament to the play’s many machines, from Charman’s plot to the design team’s set to Rourke’s direction, that I was on the edge of my seat—even though neither the humans onstage nor in the story ever stood a chance.
The Machine runs from September 6—18 at Park Avenue Armory.