All 55,000 square feet of the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall are focused on a table not much bigger than the chess board atop it.
There’s more than a world chess championship at stake in “The Machine,” Matt Charman’s play based on the 1997 re-match between grandmaster Garry Kasparov and “Deep Blue,” the computer that IBM (IBM) built to beat him.
Kasparov won the first duel a year earlier, and Deep Blue returned with a chip on its shoulder.
The hall is tricked-out like a Las Vegas boxing arena, with giant scoreboard, digital video screens and color commentators bloviating from the wings.
All of which provides plenty of sizzle for very little steak: As the match unfolds, Charman’s paint-by-numbers script skips back in time to the parallel stories of Azerbaijan-born Kasparov (the nuanced Hadley Fraser) and the computer’s chief developer, Taiwan emigre Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee, good in a more one-note role).
Kasparov is a genius with mommy issues (the forceful Francesca Annis). Hsu ignores his pretty cheerleader girlfriend from Carnegie-Mellon (Antonia Bernath). Their passion lies elsewhere, you see.
Charman toys with the idea that the man-versus-machine showdown served a public relations purpose above all. But an outsize set (Lucy Osborne) and snappy video (Andrzej Goulding) don’t justify blowing such an intimate encounter so wildly out of proportion.
Josie Rourke’s staging atomizes these gladiators, and the echo-chamber sound doesn’t amplify the themes so much as render them unintelligible. (Rating: **1/2)
At the Signature Theatre, Regina Taylor’s ‘stop. reset.’ moves the techno theme a few decades closer to the present. Set in the Chicago headquarters of a black publishing company that’s been taken over by a conglomerate with the bottom line paramount, it’s a timely meditation on the gloomy outlook for books -- real ones, with pages and spines and ink -- in the digital age.
Carl Lumbly is stirring as Alexander Ames, the aging, up-from-poverty patriarch. Even better is Ismael Cruz Cordova as “J,” a window washer with dreams and, it seems, a direct link not only to the World Wide Web, but to the tech future.
Best yet is Neil Patel and Shawn Sagady’s elegant design, playing with projections of words, quotations and a Windy City blizzard.
Taylor, who also directs, is not in control of her material, which goes seriously off the rails after Alexander and J connect. The play spins out into digital entropy that’s more nonsense than the sad, surrealistic endgame it means to suggest. (Rating: ***)
“The Machine” runs through Sept. 18 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue at 67th Street. Information: +1-212-9335812; http://www.armoryonpark.org.
“stop. reset.” runs through Sept. 29 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-244-7529; http://www.signaturetheatre.org.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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