Written by D.L. Coburn
Directed by Leonard Foglia
It’s hard not to be suspicious of revivals like THE GIN GAME. With its single set and two-person cast, a play like this is appealing both to actors’ egos and producers’ bottom lines. And the image of two beloved stage- and-screen veterans beaming from the marquee has “resold” written all over it. Cynical New York theatergoers might easily jump to the conclusion that this is yet another cynically-packaged star vehicle, its marketers stopping just short of printing expiration dates on the poster below the elderly players’ faces.
Thankfully, the production is done with sincerity and skill that all skepticism vanishes from the moment the lights come up. This is a master class in stagecraft, and the minimalistic framework of the play, rather than seeming cheap, serves to give the actors more space to do what they do best. The script, which won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for drama, than just a feelgood story about a friendship between two lovable oldsters. Playwright D.L. Coburn plenty to say about loss, regret, and American society’s apathetic attitude towards the aged.
On the back porch of a rundown nursing home, Weller Martin (James Earl Jones), finds a quiet spot among a pile of old machines and broken furniture. It’s a fitting backdrop, seeing as Weller feels like something of a discard, too. Everyone from his kids to the health care system has tried to dump him on the social scrap heap. Though he seldom gives in to self-pity, Weller is quite aware of what this place is: a temporary storage unit for the the no longer productive but not yet dead. Fonsia Dorsey (Tyson) also feels like an outsider even in this marginilaized world. She receives no visits from her children, and, like Weller, has sunk from a middle class existence into poverty. To pass the time, Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin rummy. Her uncanny winning streak confounds Weller, and his temper begins to boil over. As emotions grow raw, we get a less-than-flattering glimpse of the behavior patterns that bedevilled Weller’s and Fonsia’s relationships with their spouses and kids. It seems unlikely that their friendship will fare any better than their previous intimacies. Still, the gin game goes on: a better alternative, however acrimonious, than solitaire.
The repeated ritual of shuffling, dealing, “knocking” and notating scores gives the play a solid sence of pace and form. Exposition – especially challenging in the two-hander form – is adroitly mixed into the action and rarely feels forced. Director Leonard Foglia capitalizes on the musicality of the card game, and trusts his actors to follow their instincts. With his booming voice and expressive face, Jones potently embodies Dylan Thomas’s dictum, “old age should burn and rave at close of day”. Tyson’s easy command of the stage allows her to provoke peals of laughter and gasps of sympathy with just a delicate gesture or a subtle shift of facial expression. Both actors are generous, consistently supporting, rather than attempting to eclipse, each other’s star turns. Even visually, the two are apt foils: Her lithe, energetic body contrasts neatly with his solid frame and thoughtful movements. In one particularly moving scene, the dialogue stops and the two quietly, tenderly dance to music emanating from the home. Without sentiment, this vignette crystallizes the play’s theme. Unable to alter the past and with no hope for the future, the two outcasts still find ways to make their final purgatory livable.
THE GIN GAME CONTINUES THROUGH January 10, 2016 at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street New York, NY 10036. Tickets: 212-239-6200