The Gin Game
By D.L. Coburn
Theatre New Brunswick
"I'd rather play with a sore loser than any kind of a winner," my father used to say. I wonder whether he ever saw The Gin Game. Watching David Hughes, as Weller Martin in the new Theatre New Brunswick production, desperately try to get some kind of balanced and final satisfaction out of a few hands of gin, helped me understand what he meant more fully than I had. In Weller's view (and my father's), being a sore loser is a way to tell your opponent the game matters, that victory counts for something.
Of course, it is, after all, "just a game." It's just that sometimes it gets out of hand. Sometimes things go too far. Sometimes the person you are makes it impossible to get what you want.
Through the play, Weller struggles with the "incredible run of luck" enjoyed by Fonsia Dorsey, his designated opponent and partner (played by Joan Gregson). She beats him consistently -- even though she's just learned the game, and he's been playing it for years. Her repeated announcements of "gin" reminded me of the long run of flipped coins coming up heads at the beginning of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead." Weller's attempts to make sense of all this reminded me of Guildenstern's metaphysical speculations. But in The Gin Game the consequences are personal, rather than cosmic. Weller's mounting anger at the palpable injustice of a world where skill doesn't always count gets the better of him -- as, it seems, it always has. In the end it ruins a relationship that we come to think might have ripened into friendship.
And across the table, Gregson's Fonsia comes to see the possibility of friendship, too, and desperately tries to please -- by playing the game, by winning, by playing the role of winner appropriately -- and fails. As she, it seems, always has. She can't even manage to not win, it appears. At one point her attempt to let Weller win a game results only in yet another burst of sore losing.
As the two characters play their contentious hands of gin, the play helps us see the game as parallel to their lives. We discover quite a lot about them, about their pretensions and their failings, as they contend across the cards.
What makes it possible for a play in which nothing happens but a few hands of gin to compel our attention through four scenes? In large part it's simply that it's intelligently written and funny (it won a Pulitzer Prize when it opened in 1977). It's full of poignant lines like Weller's rueful "I'll amuse you immediately. At our age that can only mean one thing . . . I'll get the cards." Or his mordant explanation of his financial situation: "I made the mistake of getting sick -- then I made the mistake of getting well."
In a play as small and tightly focused as this, the challenge for the director and the actors is to keep our attention on subtleties and nuances, and make us care about them. We need to notice the expression on Fonsia's face, for instance, as she discovers she has yet another gin hand but doesn't quite know whether she dares put it down, or the exquisite timing with which she says, after a particularly contentious victory, "Yes, Weller, God gave me the card."
In a production like this, then, tiny things count for a lot. The way the characters vary their positions at the card table, the way movements around the stage are motivated (we need some movement, but it can't be random) -- all these decisions have consequences for the audience's attention, and it seems clear that director Ilkay Silk has made the right ones: within moments, the opening night audience was fully engaged.
And yet, there were some small things that didn't come off as well as they might. Although Joan Gregson's timing was impeccable, it seemed that David Hughes was often a little anxious, and lines came out just a beat early. This made his Weller seem more aggressive, less the victim of his own passions and habits, and tilted the delicate balance of the play away from him and toward Fonsia.
Also, the moments of physical action -- his explosions of rage; her anger at having the truth about her lost relationship with her son discovered -- didn't seem quite convincing. When Weller turned over the card table at the end of the first act, it didn't seem shocking enough to carry the weight of the emotion he (and we) are supposed to feel. These are matters that, it seems likely, may improve during the run of the play, and may make the production an even more engaging one, one which heightens more effectively the sense of devastation and loss we feel at the end, when we realize that this potential friendship just wasn't in the cards.
Perhaps the largest problem for TNB, though, is the nature of the play itself. Because it's such an intimate, even tiny, play, it's difficult to make it fulfill the expectations of the large house and the important public occasion. Not only are there no car chases or explosions, there aren't even any scene changes.
In TNB's case, Patrick Clark's set accentuates the minuscule nature of the plot by sitting in the middle of the playhouse stage, with a gap between the wings and the edges of his run-down retirement home sunporch. The play's naturalism, too, is neatly served by the backstage "Grace Avenue Methodist Choir," entertaining the rest of the inmates of the retirement home, and by the convincing thunderstorm which, in a kind of mocking "King Lear" style, underscores the conflict at the end of scene three.
Finally, then, TNB has done a creditable job of mounting this play:
if it doesn't quite acquire the incandescence that one hears about in the
reviews of the original Broadway production with Hume Cronyn and Jessica
Tandy, it's still an evening of theatre well worth seeing.