'The Gin Game': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in 'The Gin Game'

Skilled players turn a weak hand into a straight flush.

James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson share a Broadway stage for the first time in 49 years in D.L. Coburn's 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner.

By the standards of most Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas, D.L. Coburn's popular 1976 two-hander about a pair of retirement home residents who banter and bitch away the hours at a card table is so slight it might almost evaporate as it's unfolding. But it would be churlish to be ungrateful for any play that provides the opportunity to admire wily old pros James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson as they spark off one another, and to bask in their highly infectious rapport. Hats off to any actors who can manage seven performances a week at the respective ages of 84 and 90, but the co-stars of The Gin Game are doing it with such verve that the insubstantiality of the vehicle hardly matters.

The play premiered on Broadway in 1977 at this same theater, with Mike Nichols directing Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in a production later filmed for television. E.G. Marshall and Maureen Stapleton stepped in to replace them during the run of just over a year, while Charles Durning and Julie Harris starred in a 1997 revival. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore played the roles in a 2003 TV movie.

Jones and Tyson, who last appeared together on Broadway in 1966, represent a venerable continuation of the piece's history with beloved American acting veterans. The play is sufficiently race-blind to lend itself to a black cast, and while it's thin on subtext, the writing is also less overtly sentimental than that of Ernest Thompson's creaky On Golden Pond, another reflection from the same period on the encroaching sadness and bittersweet self-knowledge of old age. The same director, Leonard Foglia, staged that play on Broadway ten years ago with an African-American cast also headed by Jones.

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As with that production, Foglia leans heavily on the humor in The Gin Game, perhaps dimming some of the more emotionally affecting notes and making the shift into sobering home truths and self-recriminations somewhat abrupt. But there's no denying the crowdpleasing pleasure of watching these two masterful actors navigate the guarded isolation of their characters.

Designer Riccardo Hernandez's set is the embodiment of physical decline, gracefully lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer to show the onset of evening shadow. It depicts the back porch of a sturdy two-story clapboard house, its paint peeling, its French doors locked shut to prevent dementia sufferers from wandering and its few modest sticks of mismatched furniture nestled alongside the cluttered detritus of the elderly and infirm — wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and broken appliances.

Most of the human discards remain indoors, but Weller Martin (Jones), who makes no secret of his disdain for the doddery residents and the inane entertainment programs provided for them by the home, relishes the quiet of the porch, particularly on visitors' day. However, he's not beyond displays of a certain old-fashioned gentlemanliness and flirtation, so when distressed recent arrival Fonsia Dorsey (Tyson) wanders out one afternoon, he invites her to join him in a game of gin. A prim, folksy woman who makes much of her virtuous upbringing, Fonsia claims to be rusty at cards, but she proceeds to win game after game. This rankles the irascible Weller, and his profanity-spewing outbursts repeatedly threaten to end the budding friendship.

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That's pretty much all there is to Coburn's play, which makes touching but familiar points about the ways in which the aged are cast aside, forgotten or infantilized by a society with little use for them. But there are also clear indications that neither character is an angel, hinting at stubbornness, selfishness and other difficulties that explain why both of them are without visitors each Sunday. The play uses the analogy of cards to muse on how much the outcome of a life is determined by luck and how much by judgment, as well as how much give and take is required to avoid being stuck playing solitaire. But The Gin Game is more captivating when its characters are simply facing off over the card table than in its sketchy treatment of larger issues.

What keeps the slender piece engaging is the delicate dance between Jones and Tyson, as she gets repeatedly scared off by his bluster and then is coaxed back, following an apology, for a couple more hands of gin.

Despite being a little hunched with age, Weller remains a fearsome bear of a man in Jones' well-honed characterization, using his thunderous basso voice to stifle any uncomfortable small talk or implied criticism. (The bellowing tones with which he counts out cards provide an amusing running gag.) Weller's male chauvinism is evident in his natural assumption of the role of dealer and scorer, and his vanity clearly takes a pronounced hit from losing to a woman. Yet it's the mark of a very fine actor that he can make such a gruff narcissist vulnerable too.

Tyson is tiny and birdlike, affecting a butter-wouldn't-melt innocence and a vise-like handbag grip not seen since Sophia on The Golden Girls. But this sweet, shuffling figure turns out to be quite passive-aggressive, revealing her barely disguised glee each time she humiliates Weller by piercing his masculine pride. Tyson is especially funny when Fonsia starts to give as good as she gets in their quarrels, and even as Weller's temper makes her cower, you can feel both these lonely people gaining fresh vigor from the friction. The same goes for the wonderful actors playing them.

Cast: James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson
Director: Leonard Foglia
Playwright: D.L. Coburn
Set & costume designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Lighting designers: Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Ostar, Bob Boyett, Jon Bierman, Jamie deRoy, Eric Falkenstein, Wendy Federman, Roy Furman, Philip Geier, Ruth Hendel, Marianne Mills, Ira Pittelman, Sanford Robertson, The Shubert Organization, in association with Loraine Boyle, Barbara Freitag, Carl Moellenberg, Ron Simons

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