If you're a performer who's also writing a play, here's a valuable lesson: create a good part for yourself.
That's what the delightfully daffy Sari Caine has done in The Chess Lesson, her 65-minute one-act now at IRT. This offbeat performer, who resembles a younger Carol Kane, easily makes audiences guffaw with the antics of her wacky, somewhat unhinged children's teacher, who is trying desperately to impart the basics of playing chess to three less-than-appealing adults. She proves to be both a gifted physical actress, pratfalling immediately upon her entrance to the meticulously designed classroom (created by Daryl Embry and director Elizabeth Miller), and one who can find emotional truth in everything from the venting of her pent-up sexual frustration to the realization that her dreams have long been deferred.
Indeed, if Caine had written a more consistently hilarious or even truthful work, she could be crowned the Bobby Fischer of off-off-Broadway. But her writing is too often amateurish, notably in the bigger speeches eventually given to her trio of pupils: Mateo (David Crommett), a boorish unemployed chair salesman; Paul (David Rigo), a stressed-out lawyer; and Isabella (Meg Fee), Paul's emotionally frigid, vain wife.
Caine's premise is that these so-called grown-ups, all of whom wish to connect with the children in their lives, haven't really travelled far from childhood. And the work shows some promise as the three begin to exhibit their own child-like behavior, such as Paul and Mateo fighting over sitting in the teacher's chair, or competing for chocolate chip cookies. But when the adults actually regress (magically and inexplicably) into being children late in the play, the absurdist touch feels uncomfortably forced. By the time the girls are sitting on the floor playing with coloring books or Mateo is imagining himself as an astronaut about to go into space, the play begins to feel like a bad acting school exercise.
One also wonders why Caine made all three of these adults are so unpleasant to spend our time with. Isabella is a stuck-up neurotic. Mateo is a coarse bully. Paul, arguably the most appealing of the bunch, is fairly spineless. I would have kicked them out of my classroom, never mind the theater, five minutes after making their acquaintance.
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