nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
May 19, 2007
Chess'd! is a comic romp through the absurd and hilarious world of a ninja and a man in a white tuxedo playing a game of epic, life-sized chess. The players, both eager for victory, quickly disregard all the rules of the game in favor of doing everything in their power to destroy the other. It is only then, as the ninja and the man in the white tuxedo spin out of control, that a mysterious man with a Southern accent appears from nowhere, with a team of incompetent medics that changes everything.
Chess'd! succeeds most as a straight-up comedy. The clever, at times ingenious comic writing, combined with dead-on performances, direction, and design help make Chess'd! hilarious from start to finish. It succeeds less as an allegory for the abuse of power. A lack of clarity as to what each character represents, and how the world around them works, leaves the symbolism of the play unclear.
As a comedy, however, the play is without reproach. David McGee's writing is crisp, specific and clever. The individual gags are carefully constructed and expertly executed, whether it's "The Man's" increasingly lengthy and involved calls to Jesus Christ, the double-dialogue between the Ninja and White Tuxedo as they sheepishly attempt to explain their carnage, or (perhaps the funniest moment in the play) when the irate "Man" gets the wrong kind of coffee.
Deena Selenow's direction provides an excellent frame for the talented ensemble. Owen O'Malley is solid, and at times endearing, as White Tuxedo. Pearce Larson as The Man and Joby Earle as Ninja do a skillful job of fully committing to the language and style of the piece. Though Larson enters later on, his performance commands the second half and delivers the single funniest moment in the entire play. Joshua William Gelb's set and Denise Maroney's costume design manage the epic scope of the piece with simple yet imaginative choices that work well, and accentuate the fun theatricality of the piece.
But where the fun is supposed to give way to symbolism, confusion prevails. While Ninja and White Tuxedo do everything in their power to destroy each other, I remained unclear as to how their actions affect the world around them. While I enjoyed their battling and laughed my way through it, it didn't feel resonant with the current state of affairs in the world. It felt as though the play was being funny for the sake of being funny, which was something I thought it did very well, and I was wiling to accept it at that.
However, the sense of how this play relates to the real world, and what exactly the play is trying to say, becomes more important as the play progresses. McGee (to his credit) seems intent on making the play something more than the absurd comedy we are initially presented with. However, McGee's world beyond the absurd is somewhat muddled, and the symbolism indecisive. I was uncertain what role the medics have in the world of the play, and what they were meant to represent. I was uncertain why the Ninja and White Tuxedo were so different from them and why they had to escape them. The epilogue, given by "Other Medic", attempts to clarify what has come before, and to give it some weight. The writing is strong, but the conclusion's somber tone is jarring considering what has occurred previously; it feels tacked on. However, the very last line returns the play to its absurd core, and causes the audience to burst out laughing once again.