"Chess," a Soviet chess instructor explains early on in The Machine, is "the only game where luck isn't a factor." This complete absence of chance, counterbalanced by the game's potential for daring creativity, is what makes chess such an appealing test for artificial intelligence. If an advanced supercomputer can be programmed to master chess, it could mean that computers can develop the potential to "think" creatively.
Ever since scientists began making rapid computer advancements after World War II, programmers have been obsessed with proving that a computer program could outmatch a human at chess. The most famous showdown came in 1997 between an IBM computer dubbed "Deep Blue" and undefeated chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov—they played in New York for a match that was broadcast on television around the world. This famous duel makes for very engaging theater in Matt Charman's lively new play.
Originally produced at the Manchester International Festival under the direction of Donmar Warehouse artistic director Josie Rourke, The Machine makes its American premiere at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory, a venue that's become so integral to the cultural life of NYC it's hard to imagine the city without it. Built in 1880, the armory's magnificent 55,000 square foot drill hall has, since 2007, been put to thrilling use with a series of multidisciplinary performances and art installations. The Machine is a perfect fit; performed in the round, the design cleverly evokes the atmosphere of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," with a hushed studio audience adding to the tension.
The 1997 match was actually a rematch between Kasparov and Deep Blue—the computer first beat him during a series of games the previous year. (Kasparov won the match, but Deep Blue shocked the world by winning a game against the master.) The nine-day battle in '97 was heavily publicized by IBM, and Rourke has masterfully recreated the contest's unpredictable electricity. Camera operators film the fast-paced chess segments, which are simulcast in real time on overhead screens as sports announcers narrate the action. Don't worry if you don't play chess—only the most pivotal moments of the match are played out, and the drama is easily accessible without knowing the game.
The Machine is about much more than an ancient board game; it's about blinding ambition and sleepless obsession, and, on a more compelling level, our species' headlong rush to create technology that surpasses our ability to control it. Kasparov's foil in this dramatized version of the match is Dr. Feng-Hsiung Hsu, a driven computer scientist who, like Kasparov, rose from unprivileged roots to the top of his field. Hsu's life work leading up to this match was focused on one thing: programming Deep Blue to beat Kasparov, and Charman's dramatization succeeds at raising the stakes of the contest to a deeply personal degree.
The narrative rotates fluidly between the match in New York City, flashbacks to Hsu's combative early years as a hard-working immigrant student at Carnegie Mellon, and Kasparov's desperate childhood in Soviet-era Azerbaijan. The parallels between their backstories are perhaps drawn with too fine a point, and some of the expository scenes tend to drag on long after the narrative point is driven home. This production, I'm told, has been cut down from 150 minutes (with an interval) in London to 100 minutes sans intermission here in New York. It's now a very good hour and 45 minutes, but I think it would be a great 90 minutes with a bit more trimming.
Still, The Machine is well-oiled (sorry) and the aesthetics and choreography are often stunning. The Park Avenue Armory is a uniquely uplifting place to experience theater—I kept glancing up at the drill hall ceiling, seemingly miles above, and luxuriating in that very rare New York City commodity: space. Yet the production still feels searingly intimate, in part due to first-rate performances by the ensemble. In particular, Hadley Fraser is alternately buoyant and ferocious as Kasparov, while Kenneth Lee is alarmingly laser-focused as Hsu. Francesca Annnis is especially memorable as Kasparov's overprotective mother.
Lee's most chilling moment comes at the end of the devastating match when, after futilely trying to stop IBM from taking "his" computer to the Smithsonian, he denies Kasparov the courtesy of a rematch, telling him, "It learned you, Gary. Things are going to be very different now." Minutes later the show comes to a close and we find ourselves sixteen years in the future, filing out of the theater, waiting for our smartphones to reboot, and wondering how different things will be in another 16 years. It will be 2029. Maybe the Machines will go easy on those of us who aren't geniuses, and therefore pose no threat?
The Machine continues at the Park Avenue Armory through September 18th.