Oxymoronic as the whole notion may seem, chess hustlers are one of the pleasures of urban life. I've watched naive amateur players get taken for hard cash by well-masked intellectual killers in Washington Square Park in New York, Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and right here in con-loving Chicago, down on Michigan Avenue. Speed chess, aka blitz chess, is the game of choice, and you have to watch your clock very carefully, lest it get cleaned.
There is something inherently weird and amusing about the use of the famously ponderous game of kings to fast-hustle for a few bucks — which is part of the appeal of playwright Candido Tirado's "Fish Men," an entertaining if thematically overstuffed new play being produced by Teatro Vista at the Goodman Theatre under the lively direction of Eddie Torres. In one of the best Owen Theatre sets I've seen, the designer, Colette Pollard, carefully re-creates the chess area of Washington Square Park, hedgerows and all, and sticks the audience in the round, allowing them to surround the little group of players who rule the boards and take on all comers with cash in their pockets.
In Tirado's play, one of those marks, a guy with a few issues, decides to fight back. And if there's one thing a chess hustler likes even less than a stronger player, it's a stronger player who also knows the score.
The main hustler in Tirado's pack of regulars is the aptly named Cash (Cedric Mays) a tightly wound grad-school dropout with a nervous twitch whenever he finds himself anywhere near black-and-white squares and dollar bills. The antagonist is Rey Reyes (Raul Castillo, the fine Labyrinth Theatre Company actor), a young man who arrives at the park looking like any other lonely chess geek, a fish with cash in his wallet, but is rather more than he seems.
As these two play out their mutual cat-and-mouse chase, they're watched by the other denizens of the grand pastime, ranging from an angry Russian named John (Mike Cherry) to Jerome (Ricardo Gutierrez), a proud Cherokee, to Adam Kirchbaum (Howard Witt) a Holocaust survivor who has vowed never to touch a chess board again and who also goes by the mysterious name of Ninety Two.
Certainly, chess hustlers are a disparate international crew with, it's fair to say, uncommonly interesting biographies. But this play is just too overloaded with weighty geo-political metaphors and personal secrets for this little section of the park to credibly hold, especially since all these traumas seem to come crashing down at once. And whenever, early in a play about chess, a character announces to the world that he has decreed he will never play chess again, it's dollars to doughnuts that he'll be sitting down at the board before the end of the show. The only suspense is how we will get there.
I won't say any more about how things play out in Torres' fast-paced production (which comes with a useful sense of humor), except to say that when the games themselves are front and center, as distinct from the dizzying array of clashing agendas held by different representatives, the piece is at its best. Castillo and Mays are both terrific, staring each other in the eyes, starting and stopping their clocks, and trying to figure out what the heck the other is trying to pull.
In those scenes, the predatory power of chess is celebrated and dissected, and you can see what this play could be, if it stays credibly focused on the opportunities provided by the circumstances at hand. There's nothing trivial about chess. Within its execution lie myriad psychological truths — those with daddy issues, one player shrewdly remarks, tend to leave their kings in the middle of the pack. Tirado could certainly show what he wants to say just by having his characters play.
It would help if Torres could figure out how to show the game itself to the audience — a tricky but wholly necessary aspect of any show about chess that does not contain pop music by Tim Rice and half of ABBA. The players are really playing chess, but we wouldn't necessarily know that. We should. For in this case — heck, in most cases involving chess — that game is not just a game.
When: Through May 6
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 mins.
Tickets: $12-$42 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org