Checkmates, ETA Creative Arts Foundation. Straddling the line between insightful contemporary drama and hackneyed sitcom, Ron Milner's play--which premiered at ETA in 1987--examines the generation gap between two couples: the Coopers, who are nearing their golden anniversary, and their tenants, the fast-track yuppie Williamses.
Widely performed over the years, the play has starred such notables as Paul Winfield, Denzel Washington, and Ruby Dee. And there is some poignancy to the characters, however familiar--particularly Frank Cooper, who worked long hours in construction and in foundries to make possible the financial successes of the next generation, personified by the Williamses. "They act like they did it all themselves," he grouses. Milner's old-fashioned philosophy is also a guaranteed crowd pleaser: he proclaims that the insecure, status-obsessed youngsters could learn a thing or two about love, respect, humility, and commitment from their elders.
But Milner's unsurprising material and dialogue chock-full of apothegms are presented didactically, despite some nice performances from David Johnson (slick and confident as cunning salesman Sylvester Williams) and Kemati Janice Porter (charismatic and wise as Frank's wife). ETA remains one of the most inviting theatrical spaces in Chicago, but unfortunately the play's scenes of domestic violence are handled perfunctorily and insensitively. And overall Charles Michael Moore's direction is too sluggish to overcome the script's cliches. As the gentleman behind me remarked, "I feel like I'm watching One Life to Live.