Pawns in Their Game

Raúl Esparza and Karen Olivo in Chess (Kennedy Center via Facebook)
A D.C. production of the musical Chess requires liberal doublethink to make sense.

For more than 30 years, Chess the musical has been one tweak away from blockbuster status. It features both a tantalizing concept — chess as both a metaphor for, and actual cause of, Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. — and an array of smashing songs, two of which were hits before the show even hit the stage, in London in 1986. In a musical, these are the toughest nuts to crack. But Chess remains stymied by the easiest nuts to crack — character motivations that make sense, and a plausible story.

Now that Chess has been reworked for the umpteenth time, I can report that it’s still . . . almost there. A rousing, frequently triumphant sold-out performance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., over the weekend made it obvious that this is a show that in some sense will never die. It deserves another shot at Broadway.

With music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA and lyrics by Tim Rice of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar fame, the show (which sounds nothing like ABBA but leans closer to Evita) first appeared as a 1984 concept album meant as a fund-raising gambit. Not only did it succeed, but it became one of the few stage musicals in the last half century to send a single high up the pop charts: the sardonic synth-pop number “One Night in Bangkok,” which hit No. 3 in the U.S. and No. 1 in several other countries. From the same album, the duet “I Know Him So Well” hit No. 1 in the U.K. although it was not released as a single in the U.S. When the show finally hit the Broadway stage, in 1988, it died after two months. In London the show fared a bit better (three years). But then again, in London the moronic Starlight Express lasted nearly eight.

The basic story, inspired by the 1972 Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky chess match, has always stayed the same. A manic-depressive American called Freddie Trumper (yes, that’s been his name since the 1980s) is preparing for a high-stakes match with the pride of the Soviet Union, Anatoly Sergievsky. Sergievsky is being carefully managed by a KGB agent, Molokov, while on the American side a CIA man, Walter, approaches Freddie’s strategy aide and ex-girlfriend, Florence. In the show, it’s 1979, and the Americans desperately want to finish the seven-year process of negotiating the SALT II accords with the Soviets, in part because the CIA is (as always) dominated by Democrats. They want Jimmy Carter to be reelected the following year and think a treaty will ease Carter’s path. The CIA thinks that Russian national pride is so closely tied with its chess supremacy that a humiliation on the board would cause it to meekly accept terms favorable to America in the treaty negotiations. So it threatens Florence with deportation to her native Hungary if she doesn’t guide Trumper to victory. But then Trumper (who is such a loose cannon he calls to mind the notoriously ill-behaved tennis champion John McEnroe of the same era) makes so many infuriating and condescending remarks about the Communists that the CIA decides his winning the match would actually cause the Soviets to walk away from the SALT discussions. So it orders Florence to reverse course and disrupt Trumper’s mind so badly that he’ll blow the match.

At the same time, Florence is developing a romantic fixation on the handsome but phlegmatic Anatoly, exacerbating Trumper’s inherent paranoid streak. Later in the show, after Anatoly defects (to the U.K., not the U.S.), the Russians blackmail him by threatening his ex-wife Svetlana (Ruthie Ann Miles). Explaining and commenting on all of this is the Arbiter, an imp-narrator much like the Emcee in Cabaret or the Engineer in Miss Saigon.

The Kennedy Center put together a brilliant cast full of established Broadway talent. The Ichabod Crane–like tenor Bryce Pinkham makes for an amusing Arbiter, Ramin Karimloo is suitably seductive and complicated as Anatoly, and in their big duet Ruthie Ann Miles (as Svetlana) and Karen Olivo (as Florence) beautifully realize “I Know Him So Well.” Olivo’s performance of “Nobody’s Side,” the rock number about being caught between two nations and two lovers that is the most dynamic in the show, was spectacular and stopped the show for a couple of minutes.

The Kennedy Center put together a brilliant cast full of established Broadway talent.

Still, the new book by Danny Strong (who wrote the HBO political movies Game Change and Recount) is nonsensical in part, asking us to believe that the outcome of a later chess match between two Russians in 1983 could cause or prevent a full-scale nuclear war. Moreover, the director Michael Mayer (whose many credits include Broadway’s Spring Awakening and the Green Day musical American Idiot) indulges the cliché of pushing Trump parallels at every opportunity, frequently dropping F-bombs to reflect the perceived anger of the audience (“F*** politics!” one character screams, to huge applause). Yet on the same day that national news commentators and Democrats were arguing that for Russia to buy a few moronic Facebook ads aimed at agitating voters constituted an act of war, a projection over the stage of Ronald Reagan’s famous “Bear in the Woods” ad warning about the Soviet menace inspired roaring laughter from the audience, as though it were sheer camp to consider Russians our enemies.

That interlude illustrates some of the awkwardness of the book: It takes a liberal Western European 1980s line that the Americans were, as embodied by Trumper, charismatic but needlessly provocative, while the Soviets were gloomy and secretive but basically reasonable. This attitude didn’t age well; for decades even the Left has (tacitly) conceded that the right side won the Cold War. Moreover, today the Left is more alarmed by Russian activity than, perhaps, ever: Is the same show asking us to laugh at Reagan for fiercely opposing the Russians then, but also despise Trump for insufficiently opposing them now? Considering that the show portrays Democrats in the CIA as colluding with the KGB to advance the interests of a Democratic president, it could have taken a very different and more interesting turn if it had played up how each side in the Cold War used the specter of the enemy to score domestic political points.

Instead, we’re presented with the preposterous notion that World War III would have broken out if a 1983 chess match had turned out differently. There was plenty of real drama to the Cold War, which is why it remains frustrating that Chess feels the need to contrive it.

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