The French Defense
nytheatre.com review by Seth Duerr
August 13, 2006
Botvinnik: We all have a lot to learn from those who came before us. Don't you agree?
Tal: I'm not here to learn. I'm here to win.
Moscow, 1960. Two men named Mikhail meet to play for the World Chess Championship. The challenger, surnamed Tal, fresh from his victory over the American Bobby Fischer, is an arrogant 23-year-old, positive that he will beat the incumbent, surnamed Botvinnik, the reigning world champion of the last 12 years. Conflict runs rampant, as the only common ground between the two men is, in fact, their first name.
The French Defense, Dimitri Raitzin's playwriting debut, is a fantasy, musing on what the two men might talk about if they could say anything to one another during the match. The play, of course, is far less about the battle of the chess pieces, and far more about the battle of their ideas. The title of the play refers to a defensive sequence of moves that Botvinnik utilized in two previous world championship matches. Tal, having studied all of his opponent's games, naturally assumes that Botvinnik believes it to be his greatest asset.
While Tal brags for most of the match about his own brilliance, reducing all other players in history to the way their games played out, Botvinnik attempts to impart humility, lessons on Stalin's reign, and the idea that winners might possibly be born of something greater than superior intellect. Botvinnik shares details of his personal hardships that Tal simply cannot or will not be able to absorb until much later in his life. That said, Tal ends up playing a better game. Ultimately, the audience is rooting for Botvinnik to win, and for his ideas, and in a way he will. Raitzin does a wonderful job conveying the ultimate triviality of the match in comparison to what both men will take away from it as people.
As Tal, Daniel Hendricks Simon seems quite at home in the petulant skin of the upstart, as if he were not acting at all. While this means he is more believable out of the gate, he is actually less effective bringing to life what is more important—Tal's vulnerability. Robert J. D'Amato has the opposite journey, seeming to stretch a bit for Botvinnik at the beginning, but eventually plumbing his role much deeper—a great foil for the eternal pride of his counterpart. He certainly wins over the audience and we should look forward to whatever his next theatrical offering may be.
The French Defense would do better at a larger venue, and should the opportunity occur, it would benefit greatly from television screens on either side of the stage showing us the game as the actors play it. Many of the audience members strained to see what was actually occurring; it would be fruitful to satiate their interest in the match, as it will only increase their investment in the play.
That said, there certainly is something captivating in the ideas tossed around during these 45 minutes; once Alexsey Burago's direction kicks in, and the actors truly get into their stride over the next performance or two, they may be able to match the majesty of the Russian classical masterpieces the sound designer has chosen for their convergence in this play.