'Checkmates' moves plot, pieces with predictability

April 22, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

There's no wall separating the two rooms that make up the set for Arena Players' production of Ron Milner's "Checkmates." But there might as well be.

The play's heavy-handed point is the lack of common ground between the people who live in these rooms.

On one side, we have the kitchen of Frank and Mattie Cooper -- a kindly, happily married couple who've been together more than 40 years. On the other side, we have the living room of their tenants, Sylvester and Laura Williams -- young, upwardly mobile newlyweds who can only communicate in bed.

Once you get past the confusingly staged opening scene, it quickly becomes apparent that the action is going to jump back and forth between these rooms like the ball in a tennis match; and not long after that, you realize the older generation is going to win the game hands down. But let's not mix metaphors. To stick with the terminology of the play's title, "Checkmates" is like watching a chess game between Bobby Fisher and a rank amateur.

Admittedly, the theme of different generational approaches to marriage is a valid one, but Milner's treatment of it is as formulaic as the set. "Checkmates" isn't so much about conflict as it is about that favorite phrase of every senior generation: "I told you so."

Fortunately, the predictability of the plot is partly relieved by the performances of director Ed Terry's cast.

Continuing its frequent practice, the theater has double-cast most of the roles. At last Sunday's matinee, Marvin T. Sampson's easygoing Frank Cooper helped lighten the proceedings, and Joan Coursey, as his wife, brought emotional depth to the numerous flashbacks Milner inserts to demonstrate how the Coopers overcame crises when they were young. (However, even this sensitive actress had to strain when the script required her to play a love scene with an invisible partner.)

As the hot-blooded young Williams couple, Harold Anthony aptlyconveyed the slick veneer and quick temper of the overly eager young businessman, but TaWanna Poag seemed too studied in her portrayal of his career-minded wife.

However, the real difficulty with "Checkmates" is that it's too pat. Milner doesn't stoop so low as to suggest that the older folks' past was a bed of roses, but he persists in preaching that the old ways are the best.

In the second act, when the couples finally confront each other on stage, Laura tells Mattie that things are different for the younger generation. Milner's point, however, is that they're not. The Coopers' marriage works because they cooperate and compromise; the Williams' marriage fails because they fight and compete.

Maybe -- just maybe -- the older couple's marriage succeeded because there was more love there to start with, but Milner doesn't allow such considerations to muddy his argument. Instead, "Checkmates" is little more than a salute to the good old days.

Arena's production has its entertaining moments, but Milner's script is hardly the stuff of stimulating drama -- or for that matter, even stimulating chess.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Checkmates."

Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 9.

Tickets: $12.

& Call: (410) 728-6500.

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