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For some reason, the Gallery Players have chosen to revive "Chess," a pop opera written by Tim Rice and the male half of ABBA, about Cold War intrigue at the chessboard.

And while they’ve assembled the considerable talents of director Mark Harborth ("Animal Fair," "Noises Off," "Angels in America"), there’s also an uneven cast of actors, many of who are making their Gallery Players debut. There are a memorable moments in the production - like the scenes between Florence (Michelle Lane), the mistress, and Svetlana (Mary Mossberg), the wife; and anytime Joe Enderson appears on stage as Molokov, the Russian chess champion’s second.

But for the most part, the play has the vitality of a wet sponge. It’s too bad the Gallery Players had to end an otherwise fine season on such a tepid note.

Rice conceived "Chess" as a musical about the way the Cold War influenced both our culture and the individuals who live in it. At first, Rice approached his former partner, Andrew Lloyd Webber, with whom he had created such hits as "Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat," to write the score. But Webber was already committed to another project.

Then, in 1981, producer Richard Vos introduced Rice to Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, who created the ’70s Swedish pop group ABBA. The duo was looking to branch out into musical theater. Andersson and Ulvaeus wrote a concept album based on Rice’s idea, and two numbers from the album, "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well," were hits on the charts - numbers, one might add, which remain the best ones in the musical.

Unfortunately, Bjorn and Ulvaeus also composed over two dozen nondescript and indistinguishable songs for the London production, which ran for three years, but never managed to recoup its original investment.

With this kind of inauspicious beginning, it’s hard to understand why "Chess" was brought to Broadway. Yet on April 28, 1988 the musical opened at the Imperial Theatre - and closed rather promptly on June 26 after only 68 performances, even less of a commercial success than the London production.

Some blamed director Trevor Nunn (whose impressive credits include "Vincent in Brixton," "Noises Off," "Not About Nightingales" and, of course, "Les Miserables") for the debacle. Nunn replaced Elaine Paige, for whom Rice had written the romantic lead role of Florence, with American Judy Kuhn, and he brought in playwright Richard Nelson to write a new book and add more extensive dialogue to a script that had been mostly sung. Others pointed to New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, whose scathing review praised several performers but little else.

If you ask this reviewer, Broadway had no one and nothing to blame this failure on other than the greed of the producers.

Set against the background of East-West rivalries during the Cold War, "Chess" is a love triangle involving Freddie (Scoop Slone), the snide and arrogant American chess master, Anatoly (Jason Watson), his sensitive and sincere Russian opponent, and Freddie’s second, Florence, a Hungarian refugee who was taken to America after the insurrection of 1956.

Anatoly defects from East to West, and Florence defects from Freddie to Anatoly. Neither defection brings the defectors happiness.

Watson is adequately sincere, but he is seriously lacking in passion - even for a chess player. Lane has a nice, strong voice, but her portrayal lacks maturity, and she always seems to be wearing a business suit, no matter what she puts on. Then there’s Slone, who looks and acts like a skinny Elvis with laryngitis. Since when did the King play chess?

Pop operas with recognizable names attached to them will always have a cult following. But serious lovers of music and musicals can certainly find better fare than this dull revue. As for the plot - it was suffocated by cliches and dialogue your kid brother might have written before he flunked out of college.

At the end of the play, when Florence and Anatoly say goodbye at the airport, the echoes of "Casablanca" were so strong it was surprising that no one began humming the "Marseillai­se." But don’t be fooled. Watson and Lane are no Bergman and Bogie.

The Gallery Players production of "Chess" plays through May 18, Thursday-Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, at 199 14th St. at Fifth Avenue. Tickets are $15, $12 children under 12 and seniors. For reservations, call (718) 595-0547.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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