Let's be blunt. If "Checkmates," a play about two black couples, one elderly and nostalgic, the other young and aggressive, were about whites, it probably wouldn't have been done.
Yes, there should be black plays on Broadway, but let's not accept the mediocre just to make A Statement.
This play never goes anywhere. The young couple either argue or dance off to the bedroom. He takes umbrage at her career independence, at her gay friends. (There is something unsettling about the virulence with which one minority attacks another.) She, in turn, is unsympathetic to his job problems. Even when something real happens - she gets an abortion without telling him she's pregnant - it seems too pat.
When the older couple are not dashing to the bedroom, they reminisce about World War II, a key turning point for American blacks.
The playwright, Ron Milner, is more interested in scoring points than telling stories. At times he's successful, as when the young husband throws a stack of women's magazines to the floor, derisively reading the titles of articles all focusing on The Self. Some of the older man's reminiscences are vivid and his wife's ironic remarks are sharp.
But Milner is a bit too reverential of the old folks, too contemptuous of the young. Nothing seems thought through, and often scenes fade out feebly, a suitable prelude to a commercial but not theatrically effective.
Granted the play's weaknesses, the actors have real charm. Paul Winfield is extremely winning as the older man, especially when he shows us his toughness is just bluster. Ruby Dee is adroit at tossing off acid comments with admirable offhandedness. Both give their characters grace and flair.
Denzel Washington and Marsha Jackson often try to compensate for the play's shallowness by an excess of energy, which only sharpens our awareness of the problems.
The extremely versatile Washington is best in the comic scenes, which he does with elegant economy. Jackson is never less heavy-handed than her material.
"Checkmates" reflects an almost cynical economic awareness of a new black audience eager to come to Broadway. It has been shrewdly cast, handsomely mounted and well-directed. If only this effort had been expended on a real play.
Ron Milner's social comedy "Checkmates," which opened last night at the 46th Street Theater, has a great deal going for it, but don't judge too quickly, for you may judge it too harshly.
For one thing the first act of this play, about two generations testifying on love and life, is markedly inferior to the second act - Milner takes a long time to clear both his throat and his mind.
Also it would be possible to look at this determinedly simplistic story of two black couples - one in its early '60s, the other in its late 20s - and categorize the play as just another of those Bill Cosby-like discoveries of the black middle-class, and how whitish it is, that seem to appeal equally to the aspirations of black achievers and the sensibilities of white liberals.
Yes, and I do admit that there were times - especially at the beginning - when it seemed that the play's main interest was indeed just its blackness.
But slowly and surely, Milner won me round to the realization and acceptance of what is clearly his own view, that "Checkmates" is about neither blacks nor whites but it is about Americans and America today and the change in contemporary mores between now and, say, 40 years ago.
Milner naturally colors the details of the play black - and one of his main themes is the emerging role of the black in American society - but the central conflict of the play, that between the us-generation and the me-generation, is very clearly colorblind.
Frank Cooper (Paul Winfield) and his wife Mattie (Ruby Dee), after 45 years of marriage, four children and six grandchildren, finding themselves lost in a large house in a moderately prosperous Detroit suburb, have rented out the top floor to a young yuppie couple, Sylvester Williams (Denzel Washington), a liquor salesman, and his wife, Laura McClellan-Williams (Marsha Jackson), a fashion executive.
The Coopers have survived World War II, racism and, even, marriage. The Williamses - glossy, pampered, smart and chic - seemed ill-prepared to survive anything more taxing than a common cold, and even that might be in doubt.
Their concerns - like the Coopers, and like most people basically - are sex and money, but whereas the Coopers handle both with tender, loving care, the Williamses, totally self-absorbed, make a competitive game out of both.
As you might imagine it all works out in the end, but perhaps not quite as you did imagine it. In "Checkmates" Milner holds back a few gambits right to the end, and although his perceptions are not particularly profound, they are well put, and dramatically angled.
"Checkmates" is a far glossier work, but it does not completely fulfill the raw talent suggested by Milner's early play, "What the Winesellers Buy." Still, his seriousness, his brisk and adroit humor - it is often very funny - and his pertinence are unquestionable.
Also while the use of flashbacks (to demonstrate the older couple in younger times) seems inevitable it also proves clumsy, and sometimes - not all that often - the writing has the plausibility of a soap opera rather than the immediacy of truth.
The staging makes the most of the play's virtues and the least of its faults. The direction by Woodie King Jr. has invention, zip and style, the setting by Edward Burbridge makes just the right noises and comment, while the costumes by Judy Dearing are stunning, especially for the fashion-conscious yuppies.
A Molly Picon-ish Ruby Dee is fine as the unliberated matriarch, while Paul Winfield, truculent and comically boisterous, produces a few truly brilliant pieces of timing, such as a battle with a freezer door, or a deflating cadence to a simple "So What?" after a complex exegesis on the changing role of Man the Hunter, and woman's perception of it.
Marsha Jackson as the gal always faithful to her fashion, and obsessed by both her career and her image, seems two-dimensional in relation to her more experienced colleagues, but has her moments of convincing flash.
But the really remarkable performance is that of Denzel Washington as the obnoxious young liquor salesman, who is smart without being wise, sexy without being passionate, and self-absorbed without being self-confident.
What an actor! The man is a comic joy - his big set-to with Winfield is arguably the best-played scene on Broadway today - whether he is answering a telephone, breaking into a breakdance of triumph, demonstrating his character's vocal and gestural tics, or simply cockadoodling about his fragile masculinity.
I suppose "Checkmates" is the first play of the new 1988/89 Broadway season, and it gets that season off to a running start. Dare one say "Check out 'Checkmates'?" Oh, why not - the season is still young and giddy.
While it's easy to name a recent Broadway play or two as awful as ''Checkmates,'' it may be necessary to get out the scrapbooks to recall one quite so amateurish and boring. ''Checkmates'' is a comedy in which the characters say such lines as ''A man's home is his castle'' and ''It's a whole new ball game'' - and aren't joking. It's a play in which an actor can finish a speech with the question ''What the hell am I talking about?'' and be absolutely certain that no one on stage or off would dare vouchsafe an answer.
''Checkmates'' is at the 46th Street Theater, which stands right next door to the Imperial Theater's darkened rear marquee for ''Chess.'' This year will not be remembered as a vintage one for board games on Broadway, although why ''Checkmates'' is called ''Checkmates'' is one of the evening's many mysteries. Another is the presence of the distinguished actors Ruby Dee, Denzel Washington and Paul Winfield in the cast. The consequences of the Writers Guild strike may be even graver than we thought.
As written by Ron Milner, ''Checkmates'' often seems to aspire to emulate reruns of ''All in the Family'' and ''Three's Company.'' In a two-family home in Detroit, we meet a square older couple, the Coopers, and their swinging young upstairs tenants, the Williamses. The crotchety but lovable Coopers were shaped by the Depression, World War II and assembly-line drudgery. The upwardly mobile Williamses have his-and-her careers, a personal computer and an affinity for the advanced social ideas propagated by magazines like Cosmopolitan and Self.
That both couples are black neither adds to nor subtracts from Mr. Milner's inexhaustible supply of cliches. The generation-gap conflicts, starting with the many raised eyebrows over the younger couple's noisy sexual antics, may well predate the settlement of Detroit by citizens of any race. Though Mr. Milner is the author of an authentic play about the urban ghetto, the 1973 ''What the Wine-Sellers Buy,'' most of the Afro-American sociological background in ''Checkmates'' comes in the form of canned speeches that have been inserted into the domestic tiffs like boilerplate.
The play's tedium, however, derives not so much from its bland content as from its lack of dramatic propulsion. The younger couple's scenes are so frequently interrupted by a ringing phone that one begins to wonder if ''Checkmates'' might not be a call-in show. The older couple's sequences also fail to move the play forward - indeed, they shift it into reverse. The Coopers, who have been married 45 years, not only recite family history as if they had just met each other, but they also re-enact that history in flashbacks drenched in purple lighting that precisely matches the tone of the prose.
Such is Mr. Milner's theatrical aptitude that the two couples don't even intersect on stage until Act II. By then - over two hours after our arrival -''Checkmates'' is ready to yield its single incident of truly hilarious looniness, in which one warring wife suddenly confronts her husband with a gun. To inject a loaded weapon into a play as fluffy as this one is an act of artistic overkill akin to bringing down the curtain of ''The Nerd'' with the detonation of an atomic bomb.
Under the direction of Woodie King Jr., the cast yells incessantly and often slams the doors of a drab set that looks too frail to take the abuse. One keeps wishing that Ms. Dee and Mr. Winfield had instead been given a crack at ''Fences,'' the previous play to appear at the 46th Street, and it's depressing to watch Mr. Washington, whose past parts include Malcolm X and Stephen Biko (in the film ''Cry Freedom''), get the evening's biggest laughs by caricaturing homosexuals. The fourth member of the company, also with star billing, is Marsha Jackson; theatergoers will not be surprised to read in the Playbill that ''Checkmates'' marks her Broadway debut.