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Bored on Broadway as she waited backstage one night in 1978, actor Freyda Thomas, best known for bit spots on TV, picked up a copy of Moliere’s The Learned Ladies and started translating and adapting it into English. Within a few months, it was produced at Temple University, and in 1991 had its New York debut starring Jean Stapleton, followed by a San Francisco production in 1993. Her follow-up, Tartuffe: Born Again, in which the 17th century scoundrel is updated to a 1980s Baton Rouge televangelist, enjoyed a 1996 premiere at Circle in the Square, with Tony-winner John Glover starring.
Jean-Francois Regnard was no Moliere, but he played in the same scandalous sandbox. His 1696 comedy, Le Joueur, about a gambler who has to choose between lady love and lady luck, didn’t get the same kind of update by Thomas when she wrote The Gamester, but then again it didn’t need it — not with its astute observations that are every bit as relevant today as they were in Regnard’s time. Thomas’ witty couplets, crafty characterizations and screwball plotting have been putting smiles on critics’ faces since the play’s 2001 Chicago premiere, and luckily for Angelenos, the trail of laughter now leads to Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, where it is presented with an eclectic ensemble that proves worthy of Thomas’ masterful rhymes under the sure-handed direction of veteran Jules Aaron.
The wastrel son of a nobleman, Valere (Rafael Cansino in his professional debut) is a rich kid who blows all his money gambling. Waking up with a hangover, he learns from his trusty footman (a hilarious James Schendel) that his pending nuptials have been put on hold as his betrothed, the wealthy and beautiful Angelique (McKenzie Eckels in only her second play), has chosen his foul-breathed uncle instead. Valere decides to set things right, but before he can get out the door, he’s waylaid by a randy widow with a whip, Mademoiselle Securite (Susan Damante), who will stake him at the roulette wheel in exchange for a spin between the sheets. He spurns her at first, proclaiming, “I refuse to play the game,” though soon acquiesces with a shrug, “once in the dark, it’s all the same.”
Grunts and groans and the “William Tell Overture” emanate from behind the canopy curtains, and in good time Valere is off to patch things up with Angelique. While both Eckels and Cansino are recent graduates of Hollywood’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, neither shows a hint of greenhorn, melding seamlessly with a wide and varied cast. In fact, The Gamester is slightly overpopulated with fops like Marquis de Fauxpaus (Scott Facher), Valere’s fatuous, self-important Uncle Dorante (Antony Ferguson), Angelique’s conniving sister (Maria Spassoff), her guardian (Damante) and Valere’s father (David Hunt Stafford), each supporting secondary and tertiary plotlines.
Angelique agrees to give Valere a second chance, but only if he will forswear gambling. To seal the deal, she offers him a jewel-encrusted portrait frame bearing her likeness. With his father refusing to pay his outstanding debts because “the richest of the richest don’t pay their bills, the ones who do are known as imbeciles,” Valere resorts to one last roll of the dice, only this time in disguise. Angelique, curious about the workings of the casino, ventures in dressed as a young man and in no time drains Valere’s wallet. With nothing left, he stakes the jewel-encrusted frame, unwittingly divulging his identity.
Convoluted as it is, The Gamester shines under the direction of Aaron, who astutely navigates Thomas’ considerable literary achievement with frothy good cheer. While the couplets come fast and easy, Thomas never forces her rhymes, gliding organically from one to the next. Jeff Rack’s production design ranges from a grungy flat to a gardenscape for wooing, culminating in a casino denoted by a pair of oversized face cards. Each of his sets efficiently establishes location without crowding the cast, whom costumer Michele Young shrewdly outfits with personalized sartorial specifics.
The Gamester offers impulsive appetites, mistaken identity and course comeuppance — nothing new in comedy, but it does so with classic charm and contemporary wit, and couplets that will tickle both the bookish and illiterate.
Venue: Theatre 40, Beverly Hills (through Aug. 24)
Cast: Marco Svistalski, Elain Rinehart, James Schendel, Ilona Kulinska, Susan Damante, Rafael Cansino, David Hunt Stafford, McKenzieEckels, Antony Ferguson, Maria Spassoff, Scott Facher, RichardCarner, Lilly Dennis, Jamila Jones
Writer: Freyda Thomas, inspired from Jean-Francois Regnard
Director: Jules Aaron
Set designer: Jeff G. Rack
Lighting designer: Ric Zimmerman
Sound designer: Joseph Slawinski
Costume designer: Michele Young
Producer: David Hunt Stafford
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Melvin Van Peebles