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The Chess Lesson

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 10, 2013

The Chess Lesson

David Rigo, Sari Caine, and David Crommett in a scene from The Chess Lesson | Elizabeth Miller

Sari Caine's The Chess Lesson, presented by Slightly Altered States at the IRT's cozy space in Greenwich Village, is a play about play. You remember play: that thing you get to do when you're a kid and start to lose track of as adulthood and its concomitant responsibilities and worries take over; a thing that most of us should do more of. The Chess Lesson is a delightful and wise comic one-act about indulging in childlike flights of fancy and why we need to do that in the face of sadness or loneliness or bitterness. I recommend it highly.

It unfolds in a room for children at a school or recreation center, whimsically and vividly realized in great detail by director Elizabeth Miller and her co-designer Daryl Embry. Almost everything here is child-sized, from the portable clothes rack stocked with hangers that stands about three feet tall to the miniature table and chairs, almost toy-sized, where a chess board is laid out and around which much of the play's action occurs.

Three adults arrive in this room to learn how to play chess. Two of them, Paul and Isabella, are married (though their relationship is fraught and fraying); the third, Mateo, is older and, we will discover, out of work. They're all here for their kids—Paul and Isabella have a son, Julie, and a daughter, Sammy; and Mateo helps care for his grandson, Travis—who are learning chess from the same teacher who has invited them here today. The idea is that by learning chess themselves, they can both bond with their children and help them practice the game. A lovely notion, I think.

The teacher arrives and to characterize her as socially awkward would be generous. (I won't give away what happens when she enters; playwright Caine takes the role and her arrival on stage is truly memorable.) At first, teacher and students stick to the agenda: using a cloth chessboard displayed on an easel and some flat fabric representations of the various chess pieces, the teacher demonstrates how the pieces "move" and "take." It goes by rather quickly and is perhaps a bit on the incomprehensible side; the teacher has some tricks for making this make sense to children but the adults don't always glom onto them. Isabella wants to take notes. Mateo just wants to start playing without learning the rules. Paul, who may already know a thing or two about the game, quickly becomes teacher's pet.

And gradually, the three students start to act like little kids themselves. At first it feels like Caine is simply being farcical, putting grown-ups on tiny chairs and turning them into childish versions of their adult personas. But as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that something more complex—something richer, deeper—is afoot. We find out some difficult truths about each of these people, and discover how much they crave the simplicity, the serenity, the sheer joy of being a child again, of being able to imagine and play, unfettered.

The script is funny and smart and always sweet and humane. Miller's direction feels completely simpatico with Caine's intention, never allowing the piece to become slapstick or mawkish, always instead keeping it relatable and honest even as the adults get really silly. Caine leads a fine cast that also includes David Rigo as the (usually) buttoned-up Paul, Meg Fee as the impossibly spoiled (and lovely) Isabella, and David Crommett as the expansive, bitterly disappointed Mateo.

This is my first encounter with Slightly Altered States and playwright Caine (who reveals in her bio extensive experience as chess player and teacher). I'm looking forward to getting to know them both better in the future.