The Game Against Bobby Fischer, a new play written by Dennis Richard and directed by Gregory Fuller at the Secret Rose Theatre, purports to enter the troubled mind of renowned American World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer (Robert Weiner) as he approaches his final days in his adopted home of Reykjavik, Iceland.
In real life, the brilliant chess champion withdrew from the world stage shortly after defeating Russian champ Boris Spassky in a Cold War showdown dubbed The Match of the Century—a triumph that briefly led to a chess boom unseen before or since in the United States. But latter-life Fischer seemed to do his best to discourage fawning fans, going on record to rant against what he believed to be a global Jewish conspiracy. After his passport was revoked by the United States and he traveled to Japan, he was confined there for several months until Iceland agreed to take him in.
Richard’s play picks up during Fischer’s twilight years in Iceland, where we find him bargaining with the proprietor (Matt Weinglass) of a chess club to allow him to stay there all night. Then a flirtatious woman (Palmer Davis) who claims to be intimately acquainted with Fischer appears and throws down a gauntlet, challenging him to play.
Entering the mind of a paranoid, agitated genius is tricky territory, and it’s a coup this production doesn’t pull off. On a technical level, questionable design or inept execution leaves characters at one point speaking in near-darkness while a spotlight remains up elsewhere onstage; the stage lights frequently and inexplicably fade in and out mid-scene.
It becomes apparent early on that Davis’ character does not, in the literal sense, exist. But whether she’s a fragment of Fischer’s splintered psyche or a more malevolent force is harder to ascertain. When the chess club owner begins to interact with her as well, we lose all tether to reality. Does the chess club owner actually see her, or is he simply humoring Fischer? Are both characters projections of Fischer’s mental state? Eventually these questions no longer felt worth pursuing, and I sat back to enjoy watching Davis slink across stage.
The play hints at a deeper, darker secret for Fischer’s hate-filled speech, but the answer, when it comes, is so melodramatic as to feel laughable. In a better world, this play would fall into place like the chess game it aspires to be, emerging from a thicket of gambits and apparent dramatic dead-ends to suddenly best Fischer the chess champion, revealing Fischer the man. In the end, we get neither. Weiner gives us a fading, racist curmudgeon, but the performance and the writing do little to illuminate the motivations of this brilliant enigma.
The Game Against Bobby Fischer, Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; through March 29. (800) 838-3006, www.bobbyfischer-theplay.com.
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