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A CurtainUp Review
A Gambler's Guide to Dying

To me, he's blurry now, all these years on. Just a version of a version of a man, floating in memories, reduced to a short hand and trapped inside a story that's been embellished and distorted in so many different ways. It's hard to know which parts of it are real and which parts of it I choose to believe are real.— Narrator
Gary McNair (Photo by Benjamin Cow)
Gambling is deplored as a vice by everybody. But, in Gary McNair's A Gambler's Guide to Dying it becomes a lens into the soul of an ordinary man who had an extraordinary desire to leave a legacy behind. Written and performed by the Glasgow-based writer-performer McNair, this solo show launches the 2017 Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters with a gutsy spirit.

McNair begins with a Prologue, where he points out the challenge of accurately remembering a person when the "details have become blurred, like soft focus in an old movie." He then segues into the play proper and alternately assumes the roles of the Narrator, boy, Archie, and others. During the next 70 minutes he spins he tells us about his granddad, a man who was forever "trying to make the world more exciting."

This is no hagiography. McNair doesn't whitewash his granddad here. Indeed we learn that Archie was "any number of things to any number of people." Depending on the person observing, Archie could be a mate, liar, cheat, addict, hero, or storyteller. But McNair, who seems to have inherited the storytelling gene from his relative, refrains from passing judgment on Archie. He simply embraces the paradox of the man and invites us to see his humanity.

The piece is anchored with the most vivid episode from Archie's life — his 1966 windfall when he bet on England at the World Cup Final, and won a small fortune. It is this win, in fact, that fueled the flame of all his future gambling ventures, including his last one: Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only a month to live, Archie bet his life savings on beating the disease and living to see the new millennium.

The solo form suits McNair perfectly. It allows him the freedom to embody his younger self, his granddad Archie, the Glasgow locals and, of course the Narrator. McNair has real stage presence. Endowed with a sturdy physique and a well-modulated voice that is colored with a burr, he effortlessly holds his own as he seamlessly shifts from one character to another. What's more, he has written a fluid monologue that is a mix of prose and poetry interspersed with Scottish folklore and popular culture.

Some words and expressions tossed in did at first blush puzzle me; for example, references to "Jammie Dodgers" (a British biscuit with raspberry jam), "Irn Bru" (a beverage that is only second to whiskey in Scotland), and "Greyfriars Bobby" (the statue in Edinburgh memorializing the fabled Skye Terrier who guarded his owner's grave til it died itself in 1872). But if these references had me lost in the narrative now and then, McNair's virtuosity as a raconteur always pulled me back in.

While A Gambler's Guide has a romantic edge, it has more realism than nostalgia in its dramatic fabric. In fact, the flashback sequence when Archie wins his bet at the World Cup Final you hear enough curse words and crude expressions to make you wonder if McNair is the Scottish counterpart to David Mamet. However, injecting harsh language into the script plays against any sentiment that could dilute the power of the narrative. In any case, the street language of the Gorbals works to advantage here and keeps the riff from becoming a sugar-coated eulogy.

No question that the second half of the piece, which sensitively details Archie's battle with cancer, holds the real emotional wallop. The Narrator poses diverse questions of dramatic gravitas but they all boil down to the same thing: Will Archie win—or lose—his final bet of living to the millennium? McNair doesn't reveal anything but suspense until the Epilogue. My advice: Bring your patience—and tissues. Only a stone wouldn't be moved by how this real-life story falls out.

If you have never visited the Brits Off Broadway festival, this solo show which has already earned accolades at the Spoleto and Edinburgh Fringe festivals and garnered several awards, is a good starting point.. In its current iteration, helmed by Gareth Nicholls, it's a life-affirming story that reminds you of the power of hope in the grim face of death.

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A Gambler’s Guide to Dying
Written and performed by Gary McNair
Directed by Gareth Nicholls
Cast: Gary McNair (Boy, Gary, Archie, and various other characters).
Sound & Composer: Michael John McCarthy
Lighting: Simon Hayes
Stage Manager: Fiona Johnston
59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street
Performance schedule: Tuesday- Thursday at 7:30 PM; Friday at 8:30 PM; Saturday at 2:30 PM & 8:30 PM; and Sunday at 3:30 PM. Please note there is an added performance on Sunday, April 23 at 7:30 PM.
From 4/4/17; opening 4/9/17; closing 4/23/17.
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 4/5/17

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