THE BLOG
09/08/2013 07:58 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2013

First Nighter: Regina Taylor Confronts the Computer Age Poorly, Matt Charman Does It Better

Whatever Regina Taylor is trying to get across in stop. reset., at the Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney, has gone completely over my head, and I suspect I'm not the only one who exited--or who will exit--the 100-minute drama wondering what the devil she's getting at.
The action--and there's a fair amount of it--takes place on a torrentially snowy Chicago day in the Alexander Ames Chicago Black Book Publishers office. It's the day when publisher Ames (Carl Lumbly) is scheduled to announce which of his long-time and loyal employees--Chris (Teagle F. Bougere), Jan (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), Tim (Donald Sage Mackay) and Deb (Michi Barall)--is going to get the axe as a result of an impending merger.
While the nervous four mill about Neil Patel's version of slick digs in a modern high-rise--and Shawn Sagady's intricate projection design flashes on the walls (footage, among much else, of Martin Luther King, excerpts from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man)--Ames interrogates each of the worried quartet on the reasons they should be retained.
Their anxieties--and Ames's as well--are compounded by the presence of what initially seems to be a new office cleaner, J (Ismael Cruz Cordova). It soon becomes apparent that the nimble and sassy fellow is no typical window-wassher/wastebasket-emptier. He's something else entirely--a supernatural being gifted with mastery over all things technical as well as possessing a vision of a possibly apocalyptic future.
It's when publishing pioneer Ames becomes in thrall to J--forgetting whom he was going to fire and, in an about-face, hiring J as the overriding office consultant--that things start to go haywire. Taylor's intentions are suddenly blurred in a welter of weird occurrences involving slow-motion fights (veteran Rick Sordelet on call for these), Ames dancing in what look like his skivvies and other baffling whatalls.
The Invisible Man reference is undoubtedly a clue to Taylor's obscured point. There are hints that in a play about an aging publisher needing to move with the times (echoes of Jon Robin Baitz's Substance of Fire), playwright-director Taylor is ruminating on the black experience, where it's heading and the best approach to getting there. Along the way, she introduces incidents that have long stalked African-Americans, perhaps the harshest here being Ames's standing by helplessly when his son was murdered in the street.
But the method in which the dramatist has chosen to tackle her thesis is hardly helpful. One problem is her implying through the importuning workers--two black (one of them a Harvard graduate), one white, one Asian--that she'd be dealing with racial prejudices but dropping that trajectory completely when the volatile, mercurial J in his janitor's outfit thrusts himself to the fore and stays there.
And what's with the heavy snow, glimpsed through a large upstage window, as it obscures a Chicago cityscape? Is its reported six-foot-deep accumulation symbolic of people threatened with figurative burial? All but J enter stamping snow from their shoes. Later, Jan, realizing she's forgotten to replenish the office coffee supply, leaves for a neighboring Starbucks and returns in the early stages of hypothermia that has little residual effect.
Moreover, there are J's utterances as a deviant Ariel suggesting how not only blacks but also everyone else now alive had better accustom themselves to the fast-paced technological et al changes--or suffer the consequences.
Taylor's title is, of course, a direct reference The Computer Age. But after seeing stop. reset., a dazed patron may find that the two words take on at least one alternate meaning. It's as if Taylor is advising herself to stop the play and find a way to reset it. Or maybe simply to stop the play.
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Whether The Machine, at the Park Avenue Armory, is ultimately convincing at suggesting artificial intelligence will eventually supersede human thought capacity remains up in the air by fade-out. What precedes the questionable denouement, however, has enough high-wattage action to keep audiences enthralled.
Matt Charman's intermissionless 100-minute play reconstructs--while taking enormous liberties--the 1997 six-game chess match between world champion Gary Kasparov (Hadley Fraser) and IBM's Deep Blue (represented in a brief on-stage appearance by a refrigerator-sized cream-colored box). The outcome is, needless to say, the crux of the man vs. machine decision that won't be revealed here--in deference to those who've forgotten or who never knew.
Actually, there were two contests, the first of which the Russian master won 4-2, but Charman and director Josie Rourke are only interested--obsessed by--the second. After the second game in that match concludes, Kasparov, who'd conceded the game, comes to believe the presence of a human calling the moves was a significant factor in his defeat. By fade-out, Charman implies Kasparov is wrong, but--in one of the script's drawbacks--the scribe inadvertently leaves the question wide open.
Alternating with the match proper--which unfolds in a chess-board-cum-boxing-ring-like square designed by Lucy Osborne and which is enhanced by video designer Andrzej Goulding--are several scenes. One depicts Kasparov's beginning as a prodigy (Lorenzo Allchurch, Nicholas Croucher, depending on the performance) meeting previous champ Anatoly Karpov (Cornelius Booth). Another of the scattered vignettes concerns the construction of Deep Blue by computer innovators Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee) and Murray Campbell (Trevor White).
The most important secondary figure is Kasparov's domineering mother Clara (Francesca Annis), whose vigilance is constant, although whether Charman sufficiently delves into their relationship remains open to discussion. Yet another of the adjunct stories involves Hsu's involvement with a cheerleader he encounters called Tamsin (Antonia Bernath) as he's beginning his Deep Blue work and with whom he reunites many years later--their colloquies among the play's least persuasive.
What matters most in The Machine is the verve with which it's realized. Maybe because of the nearly infinite number of moves possible in a single chess game, Rourke has made movement her underlying impetus. At odds with typical chess games where inaction can seem the order of the day, Rourke keeps the characters circulating each other much of the time, gesticulating perhaps to a fault.
The games themselves--where Kasparov faces Hsu, who's at the computer following Deep Blue's dictates--often become violent dances. Both men (and at time others) frequently reposition the chess pieces at an exhilarating rat-a-tat pace.
Somehow Rourke--whose rollercoaster thrills aren't anything she can approximate in her much smaller Donmar Warehouse home base--and Charman also poke serious fun at IBM, for whom the well-covered event was a stock-market-recovery publicity stunt. That alone provides a healthy dollop of audience enjoyment.