"Audience shows" come in two categories. In the first, the critic can't understand what in God's name they are laughing at. In the second, he understands it exactly. Because he's laughing too.
Ron Milner's "Checkmates" at the Westwood Playhouse (it started at the Inner City Cultural Center) falls into the second category. It is as shapeless as a bag of groceries, it doesn't have a dime's worth of plot and some of its devices are beyond shame--like using the tinkle of a music box to introduce memory scenes.
What can I tell you? It's still funny. And not stupid-funny. Milner isn't above sitcom shtick when he needs to goose the story a little. (He and his director Woodie King aren't above anything.) But he knows his people so well that an equally big laugh will come on a quite ordinary remark, revealing more about the speaker than he or she realizes.
That's comedy. It calls for actors who know exactly where their characters are coming from, and "Checkmates" has them, too: Denzel Washington, Rhetta Greene, Paul Winfield and Gloria Edwards. If the script has rough edges, the acting is planed and sanded.
It would be interesting to know how "Checkmates" came to Milner. From the title, my guess is that he started out to write a play about a young black career couple (Washington and Greene) who are doing fine in the business world, but who haven't decided yet whether marriage "works" for them, as we say in the '80s.)
Their checking account is growing, and things couldn't be better in bed, but who does the dishes? Watch Washington pout when Greene suggests that, on a day when she has to be out from morning till dusk, it might be him. She doesn't understand that a man has to make plans .)
This isn't just a cute bit. "Checkmates" gives us a specific sense of today's corporate jungle and its particular risks for blacks, however hip, however educated. He does have to make plans. He does have to have a variety of voices on the phone. "Last hired, first fired" goes for middle-management, too.
The pressures on Greene include the memory of an abusive father (spelled out a little too readily) and that old biological clock. And Milner is not about to wrap up his story with the traditional finish: Darling, we're going to have a visit from the stork. She does get pregnant, but not for long.
Again, this is the story that Milner may have started out to tell. The young people are still the news peg of the evening, but we find ourselves as interested in the older couple downstairs, played by Winfield and Edwards. They may have invented to give the young folks someone to tell their troubles to, but they emerge as funny, feisty people who take a back seat to nobody.
Their story is mostly played out in flashback, to that silly music box. But it's not a silly story. When the young fellow upstairs talks about doing "field work," they smile, with more than a trace of bitterness. They remember doing real field work.
Their marriage has had its problems, too. And again Milner doesn't succumb to cliches in describing it. We see Edwards saying goodby, nobly, to an anonymous fellow with whom she took up during the war, when Winfield was serving in Europe. But it turns out not to be goodby--not quite. "Checkmates" has a way of surprising you.
The ending is inconclusive in regards to the young people, which seems honest, and goofy in regards to the old people, which seems expedient. Milner has the chance to reshape "Checkmates" into an absolutely first-rate comedy drama, if he wants to be rigorous about it.
But even in its present shape, and with a fairly mediocre physical production (Virgil Woodfork's set needs a slammable door, not a shaky door frame), this is a funny, likable play. Friday night's audience, by the way, was the visitingest crowd in memory, with people trickling into the auditorium until just before intermission. The actors sailed right through it.