Pieces on the Board
nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
August 10, 2008
Pieces on the Board bills itself as a "noir-action-mystery-thriller graphic novel come to life." And while the play, written and directed by Tim O'Leary, offers some fight sequences worthy of a summer superhero blockbuster, the suspense and intrigue necessary to keep the audience engaged between brawls is conspicuously missing.
I can't give much of the plot away without ruining some of the almost immediate double-crosses that drive the action of this play. At the start, Logan (Adam Couperthwaite) runs a bar, helped out by his buddy, Jack (Will Poston). When Cliff (Michael De Nola) walks in, he and Logan, initially, seem to be strangers. But, it turns out that Cliff is actually Logan's estranged father—and a seedy mob boss—who tells Logan that he has changed his ways and is now interested in being part of Logan's life. As a show of good faith, Cliff has left Logan as the sole heir to his fortune. The next thing we know, Logan has hired Sara (Nicole Ramos), a trained assassin, to kill his father so all the money can be his.
And that's all in the first ten minutes.
There is a genuine attempt to fully embrace this world of female assassins, sadistic Machiavellian mob bosses, and gay hired goons—tossing around terms like "the assassin's code" and never missing a chance for a tussle or an attempt on another character's life. Even the title of the play is a reference to the strategy and different characters in a game of chess. But unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino's crime fictions, where the story world is solidified by an encyclopedic knowledge of pulp and pop-culture, O'Leary doesn't always seem comfortable using the language of the genre.
Two of the biggest allies of suspense/action stories are pacing (usually fast) and giving the audience only the information they need to keep up. Pieces on the Board, however, gives the audience scenes that develop more slowly, and then, in the second act, shows the audience scenes that had just been hinted at—the action that takes place offstage in the first act. The effect is that the audience, for much of the second half of the play, is ahead of the action and struggling to stay engaged.
But, boy, are those fight sequences something else. Qui Nguyen's fight choreography is exciting and acrobatic—among the best I've seen on stage. And the actors with the most extensive fighting—Josh Berresford, Couperthwaite, Poston, and Ramos—all do a great job selling the pummeling. The best fight is between Couperthwaite (who does good work as the nice-guy pawn) and Poston (who shape-shifts between gregarious and creepy), where the two combatants end up in a passionate embrace.
But the actors can't fight forever. And it's when they stop that Pieces on the Board struggles.