Art Of Attack
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
August 18, 2010
Amidst the many topical, experimental, and outrageous offerings at FringeNYC, Asa Merrit's new play Art of Attack is punk rock for being so conventional. A family drama with three characters, what feels like two acts (though this presentation was without intermission), and one set, there is much to admire in this new old-fashioned play. The scenes feel like scenes, long and packed, and its drama plays out over an intense and compressed period of time. And, for the most part, you buy that all of this could unfold in one week in this single room.
Two estranged Russian brothers, the surviving sons of a great chess grandmaster and missing mother, have reunited in New York. One, Kaz (Patrick Barrett), who moved to America, has never stopped playing chess, even after being blinded in an apparent accident. He lives in a ramshackle apartment with his young girlfriend Rose (Cordelia Isrel), and is trying to relearn a sightless form of the game, "blindfold chess" that requires you to visualize the board. This gives him severe headaches and, in one of the plays hardest asks of the audience, seems to be killing him.
His elder brother Sergei (Jared Houseman) has abstained from chess for years, and built a life and family for himself working as a contractor in Russia. Kaz has invited Sergei to America for a reunion, and must draw him back into the game if he is to get Sergei's help to train for an upcoming tournament.
The play is at its strongest when it focuses on the two brothers. Fortunately they are the majority of the play. Their strained relationship is full of the sorts of things that make such a conventional family drama tick—secrets, resentments, and the kind fraternal mutually assured destruction that put me in mind of Shepard's True West.
Their long, tense scenes are well-directed by Joshua Kahan Brody and excellently played by Barrett and Houseman. This includes a sequence where the two brothers play a series of two-minute matches, with Kaz and Sergei speaking their moves and the sighted brother manipulating the pieces for both of them. It is a surprisingly theatrical show of skill; reminiscent of the kind of speed chess you might see in Washington Square Park between experts. From what I could see all the moves being called were being played on the board, and I can only guess at the amount of rehearsal required to memorize and so confidently and quickly play these matches. It is incredibly watchable, even from a distance.
However the play lost me in the moments, and these are fortunately rare, when the stakes become life and death. The brothers' relationship to chess—and the way it killed their father and tore them apart—plays like a story about drug addiction. And many of the comparisons between drug addiction and their addiction to chess do map from the one to the other—chess can be pursued obsessively to the exclusion of family and romantic relationships, it can take over your life. But can it kill you? The play seems to suggest that it can—that it killed their father, that it is killing Kaz and—in a particularly unlikely sequence when Rose attempts to burn the brothers' chess board and pieces in the bathroom—with its smoke and flames chess almost kills her. I just didn't buy it, and more to the point I feel that Merrit doesn't needs to bump up the stakes this high. I was completely invested in play as a family drama about competition and obsession without chess somehow being made to be as deadly as heroin.
I also found Rose to not be as developed of a character as the brothers. The play too often uses her as a delivery vehicle for exposition or, as she has a rather stagy practice of improvising fables, long metaphors that the play doesn't benefit from. I would have preferred if the play had either been limited to the two brothers, or that Rose had a stronger point of view, making her more of an equal player and less of a utility.
I do feel that Art of Attack overall is a very confident and compelling new work with a lot going for it. And I do enjoy when a traditional, straightforward play is produced at FringeNYC, to mix things up.