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STAGE REVIEW

Chess-centered drama 'Sacrifice' fails to move

LOWELL -- You would have thought that playwrights would have come a long way from the genre of the obsessed Mommy/Daddy dearest pushing the daughter/son into some field she/he despises, leading to dysfunction/suicide.

But they still think that any little wrinkle they've found in that fabric is worth bringing to the public's attention. In ''The Art of Sacrifice," receiving its world premiere at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Anthony Clarvoe uses chess as the generational battleground, and if you think chess isn't the most dramatic way to illustrate father-son problems, you're absolutely right.

Think ''Gypsy" with a change in gender and no music. And instead of the child learning to strip, the child learns to move a chess piece an inch. Or ''Long Day's Journey Into Night" with the kid smuggling in Chex Mix instead of alcohol.

Certainly, Clarvoe has metaphors on his mind when he brings out the chessboard. A chess move illustrating the art of sacrifice foretells what happens in the plot, though given the title of the play, this is not a particularly shocking development. Other chess terms have similar but even clunkier links to what goes on between Aron, the American chess champion, and his father, Will.

The latter has been the chess equivalent of a stage mother since Aron's childhood, pushing him beyond bladder control to get all the right moves. It has cost Will the love of a wife and an older son who couldn't tell his knights from his rooks. So obsessed is Dad that he used to do things like have his son fake a seizure when a match wasn't going his way. For this and other transgressions, Will has been given a lifetime ban from chess tournaments. He has framed the letter in the giant trophy room that glorifies his son's achievements.

He has, in short, such a blind spot for anything except his son becoming world champion that he's too much of a nutcase to be of any dramatic interest. Worse, the actor who plays him, Nesbitt Blaisdell, stepped into the part at the last minute, but after a week of performances he's still acting with script in hand as if he's reading it for the first or second time in a voice somewhere between a whine and a drone.

That leaves Jeremiah Wiggins as Aron with no energy to feed off along with a script that doesn't raise his character much above that of chess geek, the kind of guy who dresses in a jacket and tie for a Fourth of July outing. This might be fodder for the psychiatric couch, but not the stage.

Director Charles Towers, set designer David Evans Morris, and costume designer Jane Alois Stein seem similarly hamstrung in making much of a theater event out of ''Sacrifice." Clarvoe showed far more promise with ''Ambition Facing West," a play about the immigrant experience, staged at Trinity Repertory Company in 1997. ''The Art of Sacrifice" is ambition unrealized.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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