The Machine – Impressions from a Drama about Man vs. Machine

So, last night I went to see ‘The Machine’, a play written by Matt Charman and directed by Josie Rourke, at the Park Avenue Armory. I was curious about how this was going to be pulled off because the subject of the play is the famous 1997 chess match between IBM’s Deep Blue computer and the top player in the world, Garry Kasparov. It was difficult to imagine how the drama of such a thing could unfold in a performance piece, but somehow the show pulled it off.

The play took the path of using the match itself as an anchor for stories to be told in flashback of Garry Kasparov (played by Hadley Fraser) himself and Feng-hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee), the man behind the machine. Kasparov’s story begins in childhood as a proud, somewhat overbearing mother, Clara Kasparov (Francesca Annis), sacrifices and pushes to make sure he gets the opportunity to be the greatest chess player living. Hsu’s narrative starts from his time as a student fresh from Taiwan entering Carnegie-Mellon University, and he too has a woman in his life, a first and only love, named Tasmin (Antonia Bernath), who ultimately falls out of his life. Both tales are of two individuals driven to obsession in pursuit of their goals evoked the by the travails that take place over the six games of the match under the glare of a high profile media frenzy.

However, the framework that made this fractured storytelling and the esoteric combat of actual chess become realized for the audience was the remarkable staging in the fashion of a theater in the round complete with a scoreboard-like video presentation raised to the central rafters, just like in a sporting arena. The choreography of stagehands and actors moving pieces of the setting around like chess pieces, the game’s commentary and analysis a la a sporting event, and the electric blue lighting evoking Deep Blue (itself never actually present as a prop) created a snap and energy that one might have feared would be missing from a deeply intellectual, and typically slow-moving, endeavor.

What I took from this play was a story of hubris and competitive obsession that linked two very different individuals whose entire lives seem to come to a moment in history, only to both receive something very different from their desired outcomes. Hsu is the victor, but is under no illusion that the true winner is ‘IBM’ and the future that may come from his hard work, and Kasparov learns for the first time that being a fighter is not enough — everyone has to lose at some point in life. Both men were raised up and dragged down by their need to be more than just frail humans.

The only troubling elements I recall were in some of the moments that the women ended up as props for the character arcs of these to titanic egos. The relationship between Tasmin and Hsu ends after an argument where she points out that she supports his every effort to be the best but resents that somehow she could be holding him back. He basically ends up dumping her by assuming she is dumping him as he point blank explains that he understand that would be her action in realizing he finds his work more important than her. Fast forward to a moment when Feng-hsiung is in the hospital after a car accident (basically from working too hard) and calls a now married Tasmin, who also has a stepson, from his hospital bed. He reveals she was the only woman in his life, and the conversation becomes a contrast between Hsu just on the verge of his triumph and Tasmin who is made to be defensive about her own choices in the moment he asks her about her own dream to live in France. Her response is that she vacations there with her family two weeks out of the year, and has to plaintively state that she doesn’t regret her decisions. In the end, she shows up to the last game with her child because Hsu offers two tickets, and she makes a seemingly offhand comment about her husband being out-of-town so often. She’s put on the defensive again in Hsu’s presence, knowing his achievement may not have been possible with her in the picture and seems to still hold old resentments with that regard.

Meanwhile, Kasparov develops a personal relationship with Angela Burgess (Lucille Sharp), the IBM PR representative who at one point is dressed down after the Game 2 loss by Clara Kasparov, an implication that a potential romantic entanglement was at least partially responsible for Garry’s ultimate loss. This is further underscored by the flashback towards the end of Garry listening to his old rival Anatoly Karpov (Cornelius Booth) lecturing a chess class how no one goes through life without losing, and that the loss will come from meeting that opponent who was hungrier, such as perhaps Feng-hsiung Hsu detached from his only real human relationship, whereas Kasparov is enamored by not only the fame and fortune from appearing on Letterman or Pepsi commercials, but a woman he had just met. Angela, at the very end, also makes a gesture to help pursue allegations of cheating that Kasparov makes earlier, a move that would end her employment, which also would be exceptionally demonstrative for a professional who just met this man.

While somewhat problematic, at least in the way I picked up on these character interactions, I did enjoy the production overall. Some moments were surprisingly moving to me, and while not raucously funny, the humor was sharp and noteworthy. Also, it was particularly gratifying to me to see a well-realized character of Asian descent in such a meaty role. Hsu’s depiction could have veered into stereotype (I mean, socially-awkward, Asian male, computer nerd is not much of a stretch in terms of dramatic roles). Like Kasparov, he suffers a loss at the pinnacle of his success, but despite this, his final lines are hopeful, delivered to perhaps show some growth over what his own obsession had wrought in his own life.

I haven’t seen many live plays of late (and perhaps this blog post shows it), but this did reawaken a love for theatrical performance that I rarely get to indulge in.

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