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A CurtainUp Review
The Gin Game
By Elyse Sommer
There's a wonderful moment in Act 2 of The Gin Game when Weller Martin (Charles Durning) accepts Fonsia Dorsey's (Julie Harris) invitation to a waltz. As he buttons up his suit jacket and raises a hand to smooth down his hair before taking her into his arms we see the man of substance he must have been before bad luck and worse judgment brought him to seedy indoor porch of the nursing home in which D. L. Coburn's Pulitzer prize winning revival is set. Because Durning is a big, broad hulk of a man and spends most of the rest of the play hobbling around with the aid of a cane his nimbleness during this brief scene is particularly telling. And, of course, he couldn't have chosen a better partner than Julie Harris, not just for this waltz--(according to people associated with the production this was added by the playwright at Ms. Harris' request)--but as his partner in the series of gin games that serve as the dramatic axis for this two-character play.
Anyone coming to this revival with memories of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, will be pleasantly surprised to see that the two forlorn castaways from life's mainstream who they made famous have been thrillingly re-interpreted by Durning and Harris. Anyone who either missed or is too young to have seen the original, should rush to the Lyceum to see how truly fine actors can make your heart ache for two self-deluded, ordinary people whose lives have slid from dreary to dreadful. And to add to their remarkable achievement, this perfectly matched couple, manages to turn your visit to their dreary abode into a barrel of laughs and make the underlying joke of their gin games utterly convincing.
The device of a game of cards as a sort of onion that peels away the players' true personalities and situations with each deck that's dealt is of course not a new one and its Pulitzer credentials notwithstanding, The Gin Game could well be a losing proposition with less adroit players. However, Ms. Harris displays the true card player's infallible poker strategy, never once betraying her pose of the lucky amateur. Each triumphant declaration of "gin" is a triumph of buoying the audience's spirit along with her own. As her off-hand, innocence at "knocking" and "gin" declarations produce one win after another, so her nice-Methodist-ladylike decorum becomes suspect of being "skim milk masquerading as cream."
As for the "expert" partner's near apoplectic reaction. . . it gradually becomes as unsettling as it initially amuses. If the light tone introduced by that newly added dance scene makes the dark climax somewhat too enigmatic, this Fonsia and Weller nevertheless persuade us that it's not really completely out-of-left-field. Of course, much of the credit for this smooth blend of lightnes and darknes belongs to the director Charles Nelson Reilly. And to give the right sense of place to the evening's developments, James Noone has once again created a wonderfully right on set. The plants in the greenhouse that abuts the spacious but shabby enclosed porch rattle and shake every time a train passes--a symbol of the shivers of fear running through the people warehoused in a place at which no train will stop to take them back to a time and place where they might undo the mistakes that have brought them to this time and place.
As I left the Lyceum, I overheard a young man in his thirties say to his companion "I don't think we should send grandma to this one." If he had taken a more careful look around, he would have noticed that most of the people in that audience were closer to Fonsia and Weller's age than his. These grandmas and grandpas are obviously gutsier about confronting issues of life and death than the younger generation which is so sadly absent from well-acted Broadway dramas.
This is not a depressing play. It's a slice of real life. It's also a celebration of the accomplishments of older people. Given vehicles with which to show off their stuff, veteran actors can serve as an inspiration for anyone who wants to see why Broadway plays used to run for years to audiences of all ages.
I only hope that young man and his companion bring not only grandma but their contemporaries to see what fine acting is all about. At a time when theater awards are bursting out all over the place, its too bad someone hasn't created a "best older actor" award during a season that's given us Christopher Plummer in Barrymore and Rip Torn and Shirley Knight in Young Man From Atlanta..©right April 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.