The Queen’s Gambit at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre is about a blind, high-stakes game in a London social club. It’s also about blindness and risk, a subject that dominates, as in most matters of the optic and the dial, the show’s dialogue.
It’s about internal dissension, jealousy, rivalry and relationship conundrums. It’s about the young women who play chess, and their refusal to be cowed by the more powerful of them.
It’s about one of the most remarkable scenes in Broadway history, in which three of these women of chess played Scrabble (we’ll call it a game of hockey). The scene is credited as a stage coup but really reveals the no-holds-barred nature of the game and the rebels the players are.
The game is called “Blind Scrabble,” and it’s played by Cynthia Nixon and Amy Morton in a short conversation before being sent to the hall. The others in the club are focused on their doubles – big duels, often with scary physical violence. Down the hall, their opponent is the wondrous Amy Morton. An exact duplicate of her character, she plays the straight man, Mam’s younger daughter, Paula. For her opponent, the romantic George Griffen, Jessie Mueller has a trick up her sleeve: A recent chess-teacher flame, she plays the groom from the same class as Paula, in The Society.
Matthew Warchus’s play, a winner in its debut season at the National Theatre (before the production transferred to London this fall) is a clear winner with audiences as well. But “Blind Scrabble” is its most memorable scene, and the play (directed by the film director Todd Haynes) would benefit greatly from making it a running sketch.
Morton and Mueller are outstanding together, vividly drawn, wryly observant and definitively intriguing. Those who know or had never heard of the time-honored game simply call it “The Grand Chess Game.” But “The Queen’s Gambit” mixes the game and the culture of the social club with fervor and a disquieting sense of inevitability.
There’s an extraordinary screwball humor in the way the women game it out, and it’s elegant, hilarious and not in the slightest bit trite. A game of their choosing ends with very badly played beans (Blind Scrabble is, that is, actually blind). Warchus still has a way to go in her construction of rivalries and relationships between women in this game, but he clearly knows how to put a comedy in motion.
As for a stage audience, Nixon plays Mrs. O’Loughlin like a model of refinement, gravitas and no-nonsense toughness. She’s the only one of the players we see blindfolded as they handle their hands and play the game. We get to see Nixon in action as well as as the match’s sole player. It’s called a blindfolded fight, and it is all in the box.
And Kristine Nielsen plays the mistress of the games club and (who? in the world?) a character named “Queen Victoria.” She does so with such poise, such humor and such control of a character’s sexuality that it could be her trickiest role of the whole piece. And there’s not a moment of it, no hint of a lapse.
Nixon’s agent must be thrilled to have her returning to the stage, though she seemed a lot frailer on Broadway than on television (where she is still as irresistible as ever). When she arrived at the stage door this week, a record crowd had gathered to celebrate her successes.