Directed by Leonard Foglia
Reviewed by Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited
“The Gin Game,” experiencing its third run on Broadway, was Donald L. Colburn’s first play premiering in 1976. The well-received play managed to garner him The Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1978 after the successful run on The Great White Way starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. What became evident from that original production was that in order for this two character play to succeed the cast and creative team needed to be brilliant sharing an unwavering approach and enjoying direction with a clear intent. This might be even more essential now, as social awareness of spousal abuse has become a mainstream issue with enormous media attention. This piece of theater is not a dark comedy but a dark drama sprinkled with a bit of sugary antics to make it easier to digest, while still causing an uncomfortable aftertaste. Unfortunately this current production starring the legendary Cecily Tyson and James Earl Jones might be misguided by falling prey to audience expectations.
In true Broadway fashion when each of these iconic actors enters the stage there is generous welcoming applause, well deserved for their past collective work. Although these accolades demonstrate public respect they also indicate that the audience might control the mood and temperament of their performances. At this particular viewing, the laughter from the audience (sometimes inappropriate) made light of some serious situations and possibly provoked the actors to reluctantly rely on that devise in order to gratify their spectators. Or possibly the direction by Leonard Foglia was too dependent on comic relief, revealing less of the dark undertones of Mr. Coburn’s dense text. By no means did this produce an unworthy production but merely captured a more light hearted journey.
It is pure joy to watch these two theater legends exercise their craft, developing complicated characters that reveal ugly truths, as their exterior layers are slowly peeled away to expose so many human imperfections. Mr. Jones is a magnificent presence, still boasting that iconic vocal bass that commands your attention, but it is when he is relaxed, letting his voice drift up an octave that the sensitivity and vulnerability cuts through the curmudgeon, Weller Martin. He shuffles slowly, shows his age, but never weak and as he tosses unused paraphernalia around to find a card table or comfortable chair, you are reminded that an emotional volcano may erupt at any time.
Ms. Tyson appears frail with a petite frame, curly locks of hair framing her worn features and piercing eyes, ready, willing and able to step into the ring with her newly found sparring partner. Her Fonsia Dorsey is smart, cunning, and vindictive and uses these traits to disguise the pain from past battle wounds. She is alone and lonely but strong and intuitive, knowing how to play and win. One of their best scenes involves almost no dialogue. Fonsia convinces Weller to dance. They tentatively approach, search for a comfortable stance, then slowly escape into each other’s arms finding comfort, fulfilling needs, and satisfying their shared thirst for companionship. Just for an instant you know they are calm and safe, possibly happy, and wishing this moment would last a little longer.
The script is appropriately slow, tedious and repetitious with much of the action being driven by the characters and thankfully that has been left in good hands in this production. The impressive set by Riccardo Hernandez is massive and looms ominously over the two nursing home residents as a constant reminder of their insignificance and destiny, complete with torrential thunder storms and a leaky roof. Although not a perfect, it is well worth the time to see two theater legends breathe life into a somewhat flawed production.