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The Gambit

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THE GAMBIT, at the Theatre Building. Chicago playwright Peter Toran achieves the nearly impossible: an apolitical view of Nazi Rudolf Hess, who spent most of the war in an English prison after a solo, apparently unauthorized attempt to make peace in 1941. What was Hess trying to accomplish, and on whose behalf? Why did the victorious powers think it worthwhile to keep him imprisoned alone in Spandau for more than 20 years? Apparently Toran doesn't know or care. Instead he's imagined Hess and his prison guard playing a chess game, taking each other's measure and developing an unexpected intimacy.

That might make an interesting play, but this isn't it. Though Hess (William J. Norris) complains that "there ought to be something in the Geneva Convention protecting prisoners of war against the third-rate philosophizing of guards," he's the worst offender in this regard, meditating with leaden significance on birds and chess. (Block that metaphor!) Yet whatever he's trying to get, or avoid, remains hidden. Likewise the nameless guard (Steven Rishard) presumably has something to gain from violating the rules against conversation, but by the time an explanation is offered, it's far too late for the audience to understand--or give a damn.

When Toran does grapple with the issue of war crimes, he offers only facile special pleading: "The facts are the province of the victor." In a better play this nonsense would be enraging, but in this inanimate piece it hardly matters.

--Kelly Kleiman

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