Thursday, July 29, 2010

Theater review: Dramaworks' 'Gin Game' like two hands of solitaire

Barbara Bradshaw and Peter Haig in The Gin Game.


By Hap Erstein


Without the safety net of their subscriber bases,‭ ‬South Florida theaters often ease up on their missions in the summer with lighter fare.‭ ‬A case in point is Palm Beach Dramaworks,‭ ‬which just came off its‭ ‬most challenging season in its‭ ‬10‭ ‬years of existence,‭ ‬lowering its sights with the playing card-thin serio-comedy,‭ ‬The Gin Game.

The play brought instant recognition to its playwright,‭ ‬D.L.‭ ‬Coburn,‭ ‬who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in‭ ‬1978‭ ‬for this tale of two elderly residents of the Bentley Home for seniors who meet and do battle over a series of gin rummy games.‭ ‬Some find this odd couple match to be profound,‭ ‬but Coburn’s real achievement was creating a couple of acting roles that two wily veteran performers could sink their teeth‭ ‬– or dentures‭ ‬– into.

There’s nothing wrong with that,‭ ‬and J.‭ ‬Barry Lewis,‭ ‬the company’s chief director,‭ ‬seemed to have cast the play well with Peter Haig and Barbara Bradshaw as the compulsive gamesman with a paramount need to win and the complete novice who stumbles into beating him,‭ ‬time after time.‭ ‬Individually,‭ ‬they are fine,‭ ‬but the play is a fragile duet and even after a week’s delay of the press opening,‭ ‬they seemed to be occupying completely different plays.

As curmudgeonly Weller Martin,‭ ‬Haig takes a broad approach,‭ ‬pumping his foot like a sewing machine pedal to the rhythm of his dealing,‭ ‬barking out the cards by number,‭ ‬erupting with foul-mouthed anger with each defeat.‭ ‬Bradshaw underplays straitlaced Fonsia Dorsey,‭ ‬subtly suggesting her thoughts through facial expressions as she goes from innocent glee to embarrassment to a new-found competitiveness as she plays.

Both performances are right for the characters,‭ ‬who are vastly different,‭ ‬but for the rhythms of the dialogue to work,‭ ‬the actors need to mesh better.‭ ‬Chances are that intangible quality known as chemistry will develop over time,‭ ‬but at the performance I saw,‭ ‬the added spark that the play so needs from its cast was not yet evident.

The Gin Game’s strength is in the clash of characters,‭ ‬though Coburn also tosses in some social commentary‭ ‬about the way we warehouse our elderly.‭ ‬Both Weller and Fonsia are guarded and secretive,‭ ‬so it is anything but surprising when their mutual protective armors get punctured in the second act and they are revealed to be different from their initial claims.

The entire play is set on the old age home’s porch,‭ ‬nicely realized by scenic designer Michael Amico.‭ ‬But with so much time devoted to the card games,‭ ‬the stage action is necessarily quite static.‭ ‬Lewis does what he can to counteract that problem,‭ ‬but the fact that the notion comes to mind suggests that the performances do not sufficiently draw attention away from the play’s limitations.

THE GIN GAME,‭ ‬Palm Beach Dramaworks,‭ ‬322‭ ‬Banyan Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Aug.‭ ‬15.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$42-$44.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬514-4042.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Picky, picky...

This was a great production that had me laughing very often. Two terrific actors had great chemistry.

Someday, Hap Erstein will write a review that accurately describes what was on stage instead of projecting his "book report" level writing on serious drama.

Critics do a disservice to most of the serious work in South Florida...Hap Erstein's lack of credentials is perhaps the most egregious example.