Checkmate!: The Chess Lesson

01/16/2013 4:00 AM |

The Chess Lesson

IRT Theater

Sari Caine is a serious chess player and teacher as well as a playwright and actress, and in this play (through January 27) her love and knowledge of the game informs her writing without dominating it. This is not a play about chess, per se, but an intuitive narrative that uses a chess lesson as a sturdy backdrop for an increasingly wild exploration of four characters: brittle wife and mother Isabella (Meg Fee), her good-guy husband Paul (David Rigo), aggressive macho-man Mateo (David Crommett), and their unnamed chess teacher (Caine), a frazzled woman who also teaches their young children.

Caine collides with a coatrack when she first enters, taking a pratfall onto the floor and then staying down helplessly until someone can remove the rack from her body. The fall itself isn’t particularly funny, but the way the faller just stays on the floor with the tips of her sexy stockings showing is hilarious. When she gets up, Caine dithers away in the quirky, energetic, sexless fashion of certain elementary-school teachers who get lost in the world of kids, but at a certain point she loses her inhibitions, flaunts her red underwear, and brazenly admits to fantasizing about being fucked on a pool table.

All four characters in The Chess Lesson are not who they first appear to be. Mateo is more vulnerable than he lets on, and Isabella is far more wayward and romantic underneath her uptight manners than she seems, while Paul reveals certain male territorial urges underneath his obsession with being a good person. The wonderful thing about this play, which makes it so original, is that it’s not remotely realistic but it isn’t full-out absurdist, either; it creates its own world and its own rules. If Caine had wanted to write a more conventional play, she would have established these characters as adults in a realistic setting and then gradually let their childlike natures take over, but the fact that our childlike natures are still inside us is simply an unsentimental given here.

Caine has something to say about time, marriage, the roles we’re slotted into and all the other selves we’re capable of becoming. The flexibility of Caine’s theme is very well-suited to the theater, and the performances that director Elizabeth Miller gets from her cast are filled with intimate emotional details—Fee, in particular, is extraordinarily tender at the end of a monologue in which Isabella describes her impressive first date with her husband, as if she must share her dearest secret with us. As a writer, and also as an actress, Caine never comes near a cliché or a timeworn idea. Produced on a shoestring, with two fine actors (Fee and Rigo) who aren’t in Actors’ Equity yet, The Chess Lesson is one of those multifaceted finds that rewards those who bravely search out new plays at small theaters.

Photo Elizabeth Miller