CHESS MATES Jacobs and Fraza.
Both the first and the last line we hear in Art of Attack, by Asa Merritt, is: "You must take your opponent into a deep, dark forest where two and two are five and the way out is only wide enough for one." The instruction, from one brother to another, is about chess, but when we hear it the second time, we see that it also applies to deception and betrayal.
It's an uneven production at Mixed Magic Theatre (through October 10), but the psychologically tense story comes through loud and clear, and a bravura performance by one of the three actors is certainly worth witnessing. Direction is by Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, the theater's artistic director.
Kaz (Jonathan Jacobs) and Sergei (Matt Fraza) are brothers, sons of a deceased but still-demanding chess grandmaster. At first we think that this is a friendly, if reluctant, reunion of the Ivanov brothers. But before long we see that hidden agendas by both of them will make this a far more complicated meeting.
Sergei has been summoned from Moscow. It has been 10 years since they have spoken to each other, and the unexplained reason for the feud provides a nice initial tension that is milked for a while. Kaz is blind, which Sergei hadn't known, so how he was blinded is another matter of minor suspense.
Kaz wants his brother to help him prepare for a local tournament, coming up in three weeks, which will qualify him for one in Dresden soon after. Ostensibly confident but clearly desperate, the nervous Kaz makes obvious that winning them both means everything. He's broke, so being able to pay his rent with the awards would be a relief but, more importantly, his self-esteem is on the line. Sergei says he doesn't play anymore and thought this was just going to be a re-acquaintance visit. So he books the next flight back. The entire first act is a campaign by Kaz to cajole, guilt trip, or trick his brother, who used to be the better player, into nudging a pawn forward.
The first act is titled "A Brooklyn Reunion" and the second "Preparation," so we know that Sergei will eventually give in. But the process of his change of mind is interesting to watch, and there are plenty of other uncertainties piling up to propel the narrative. Their father died of a heart attack, and they are both worried that it might be hereditary. Early on Sergei says that he wants to apologize, but is interrupted, and when we learn that the apology is for locking Kaz out of their apartment, we don't know why for a long while.
Fraza convincingly handles a lot of emotional ebb and flow as old issues come up, buttons are pushed, and their sibling rivalry plays itself out. Fraza's Sergei contains an energy that occasionally hisses out, and he eventually admits to his obsessive personality: he was a chess "addict," and that's why he stopped playing.