nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
August 13, 2006
Autism is certainly a potent subject for theatrical exploration. How much autistic children can comprehend of the world around them remains mysterious, and their parents and caretakers must constantly try to determine what's in the best interest of a young person who can rarely communicate her or his needs explicitly. The frustrations of raising an autistic son or daughter are keen indeed.
Unfortunately, CHESS is an underwritten, under rehearsed, and underpowered snapshot of a viscerally intriguing situation. This 40-minute look at an autistic girl (played by Grace Clary), her father (David Flaherty), and his mother (Angela DellaVentura) strikes glancing blows where it should lacerate, and feels like a sketch for a fuller, deeper play. Drew Brody's script leans too heavily on extremely familiar and stagey banter to get going, and only periodically gets to the heart of the matter. An argument between mother and son feels lifted directly from a dozen other plays; when the fellow says, "I've heard all this before," it's difficult to disagree with him. Hints are dropped that the girl may be a genius at chess—her attention for virtually the entire play is locked on a handheld electronic version of the game—and then dropped. Her father's journey from inattention to patience is hasty and unconvincing. And the girl's grandmother is a tired theatrical construct, the older woman who doesn't understand why her son would ever have gotten divorced (despite the fact that she has no apparent love for her ex-daughter-in-law) and who primly corrects her son at every opportunity.
The actors, who had an unfortunate unfamiliarity with many of their lines at the opening performance, do what they can. Flaherty has a winning everyman presence; DellaVentura attempts to inject a sense of modernity into her character's old-fashioned behavior and dialogue; and Clary (who has the least text but the greatest command on stage) has admirable focus, even if she tends to look frightened too often. But Darrell Larson's poor staging serves neither the play nor the players. Flaherty carries a notebook and pen to indicate, perhaps, that he is working, but he never actually does anything with them, and he and DellaVentura wander around the room with little apparent rhyme or reason.
CHESS, rooted in a truly terrific idea, is a dispiriting disappointment.