On May 11, 1997, the triumph of machine over man officially began (not August 29 of that year, as erroneously predicted in The Terminator). The contraption in question wasn't a military supercomputer with nuclear capabilities, but a monolithic IBM chess machine called Deep Blue. It defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match, the latter's first-ever loss. That is the subject of Regrets author Matt Charman's latest play, The Machine, which is making its American premiere in a production by Donmar Warehouse at Park Avenue Armory after an initial run at the Manchester International Festival. The play gives a thoughtful look at the stories of the men involved in this arguably seminal moment in human history, but it cannot quite make coherent sense of that moment's significance, leading to a conclusion that feels like a false epiphany.
A few notes on the venue itself deserve mention. Entering Park Avenue Armory is like stepping into a slightly less magical Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Dimly lit wood-paneled rooms festooned with dusty trophies overflow with audience members drinking wine and playing chess. While this perfectly sets the mood for the ensuing play, it has the adverse effect of delaying the show: The performance started 17 minutes late the evening I attended. I suspect too many people are enthralled by the spirit of competition and want to see their games out to the bitter end. Be prepared to settle into your seat and read Daniel King's excellent program note while you wait for the curtain to finally rise.
Of course, there is no curtain in this production. The clubroom atmosphere of the anterooms yields to the cavernous drill hall, which feels more like an airport terminal with its bold signage and roped entries. The play is staged in the round with arena seating. We are the live studio audience for Kasparov vs. Deep Blue. With this setup, one would expect a boxing ring, but instead there is just a wooden desk, a chess table, and a flat computer monitor.
Garry Kasparov (Hadley Fraser) enters the space, confident and ready to repeat his 1996 triumph over IBM. In 1985 at the age of 22, he became the world's youngest chess champion in history, and by 1997 he still held that title after defending it successfully five times. The stakes seem higher in this match, however, as if Kasparov is not playing just for himself, but for all humanity. Can one man handle that pressure? Opposing him is not the machine so much as the team of engineers, chess consultants, and programmers led by Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee), the human face staring back at Kasparov over the chessboard.
Director Josie Rourke has painstakingly staged a cinematic chess experience with all the cheesy yet nail-biting excitement of Hoosiers or Miracle on Ice, complete with caffeinated broadcast commentary. The cameras swirl around the game table, zoom in on the two men, and get dynamic close-ups that are projected on jumbotron-like screens hanging over the playing space (fine work by Andrzej Goulding). All that is missing is a giant blinking Pepsi ad.
True to form, Charman has written a script full of competitive high drama, and the actors run with it as if they were playing in a Lifetime original movie. This is tremendously satisfying to watch and necessary in such a big space. Fraser gives a compelling performance that allows the audience a glimpse inside Kasparov's head — his insecurities and fears projected large on stage.
Between the game-play scenes, Charman splices in flashbacks. There's 10-year-old Kasparov in the Botvinnik Chess School and a bespectacled Feng slaving away in a computer lab at Carnegie Mellon. A ballet of chessboards and computer stations dance about the central table on the LED-lit tracks of Lucy Osbourne's sleek and versatile set to Michael Bruce's Prokofievian score. All of this makes for a captivating show that is simultaneously theatrical and cinematic, perfect for an audience accustomed to rapidly switching focus between multiple screens and windows.
Yet for all its formal brilliance, The Machine feels a bit unsatisfactory when it comes to content. "I think you'll find things are going to be different now," Feng menacingly tells Kasparov following his defeat — but how? Charman is unable to answer this question because we are still very much living through this history, the remarkable and exponentially accelerating development of computer technology, which increasingly touches every aspect of our lives. We cannot yet make sense of this change beyond the vague notion of "different."
The Machine hits a far more astute note when Feng remarks to Kasparov, "It's IBM's machine now. Don't you get it? They played us both and they won." Indeed, while many are still aware of Kasparov, who persists in the public eye as a major critic of the regime of Vladimir Putin, few remember Feng's role in developing Deep Blue, a name now inextricably linked to IBM. Rather than the triumph of machine over man, perhaps this moment in history really signifies the triumph of corporation over man.