The 1997 chess match between grandmaster Garry Kasparov and the IBM-sponsored Deep Blue computer was touted — in a flashy marketing campaign — as an epic battle of man versus machine. The contenders were charismatic: a hot-blooded Russian genius and the world’s most advanced chess-playing tool. Their conflict was simple, timeless, and irresistible. If Kasparov had won, the story would’ve been a neatly packaged triumph of the human spirit, perfect fodder for any number of TV movies or a middle-highbrow prestige pic. He didn’t. And in losing, he created a far thornier narrative, one without clear answers to the questions that it stirs about competition, the limits of intelligence, and the nature of creativity. (Tellingly, the event’s highest-profile account until now was the independent 2003 documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine.)
The savvy opening move of The Machine, a tautly entertaining and superbly acted new play by Matt Charman (playing through Sept. 18 at Park Avenue Armory), is to reconfigure the central battle entirely, turning man-vs-machine into man-vs-men-who-created-machine. Kasparov (Hadley Fraser, in a transfixing performance) is still the hero. But the team behind Deep Blue — headed by the ingenious coder Feng-hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee) alongside his college buddy (Trevor White) and a chess expert (Brian Sills) who brags about once playing Kasparov to a draw — vie for our sympathy, too. Their quest to create the ultimate chess computer, and by extension the world’s most evolved machine, becomes every bit as compelling as Kasparov’s fight to prove them wrong.
Staged by Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director Josie Rourke (the show is a co-production of that theater, the Manchester International Festival, and Park Avenue Armory), The Machine is presented as a cerebral prize fight. The action takes place on a small platform, cheekily designed like a macro microchip, beneath a series of Jumbotron-style screens fed by cameras that circle the actors at key moments for the benefit of the audience, who watch from stadium seats on all four sides. (The nifty set-up also gains wow factor from its placement in the center of the Armory’s cavernous Drill Hall, an engineering marvel in its own right.)
Through clever stagecraft and seamless transitions, the match is intercut with revealing flashbacks and asides showing Kasparov’s relationship with his ruthless mother (Francesca Annis), Hsu’s tangled feelings for his college sweetheart (Antonia Bernath), and the power-jockeying of IBM’s publicist (Lucille Sharp) and Kasparov’s agent (Owen Williams).
The effect is of a theatrical machine, delightful in the complexity and precision of its actions — but missing some of the messiness of life. The emotional notes that the play hits are always clear but often unsurprising, from Kasparov’s thwarted ambition to the IBM team’s feverish devotion to their creation. There’s no strong catharsis waiting at the end; you walk out much more dazzled than moved by the feat of clean, smart storytelling. Maybe that’s just a testament to the show’s technical prowess, or its preference for intellect and dry humor over sloppy sentiment. Or maybe Kasparov’s thorny story hasn’t quite been conquered yet — The Machine simply battles it, move by cunning move, to a commendable draw. A-