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A CurtainUp Review
The Gin Game

Is there something wrong with you? I mean, are you sick?— Fonsia

Oh my, I should say so. I have one of the most advanced cases of old age in the history of medical science. The mortality rate's incredible.— Weller

I just thought there might be something you were getting treatment for.— Fonsia

No. You don't need anything special to qualify for Bentley. Old age is sufficient.— Weller
gin game
Cicely Tyson & James Earl Jones(Photo: Joan Marcus)
D.L.Coburn's play The Gin Game has been a magnet for two actors to strut their ability to be at once funny and sad since its 1976 debut. Winning a Pulitzer and enjoying a 500-performance Broadway run has helped to put it on stages all over the world, with and without famous actors.

However, for this tragi-comedy's two residents in a low-income old folks residence to unpack all their vulnerability, anger, and diminishing physical and financial health in an increasingly volatile gin game to fill a Broadway theater, it needs two box office magnets on the marquee. For the 1976 Broadway premiere at the Golden Theater and the ensuing movie that meant Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn and the 1997 revival, Julie Harris and Charles Durning.
Now the cards are being dealt once again at the Golden. The gin "expert" is James Earl Jones and the crafty winner of all but one hand is Cicely Tyson. And no sooner does the scrim curtain rise on the cluttered, unused porch of the Bentley Old Folks residence than you know you're in fine hands.

This new Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey prove that nowadays being old is likely to have you still at the top of your game —, and I don't mean a card game. Tyson and Jones are really old enough to qualify as nursing home residents (the actors originating and reprising the roles were actually at least a decade younger). But here they are giving full throttle performances, digging into the loneliness and pain of life's disappointments making.

This age-appropriate casting makes Coburn's two-hander at once timely and dated. It's timely in a positive way because today eighty is the new sixty-five or seventy and lots of men and women who are well past seventy are, like Tyson and Jones, living rich and active lives. It's also timely in a more depressing sense, that many senior citizens not blessed with decent health and incomes are indeed ending their lives in nursing homes that can indeed feel like a joyless warehouses for senior citizens, especially those who've fallen into society's economic cracks.

But the play hasn't aged all that well The reliance on the repeated gin games to serves as a sort of onion to peel away the players' true personalities and situations with each deal has always been somewhat too schematic. And it seems more so than ever. In short, while Tyson and Jones have indeed aged wonderfully well and and make us laugh and pity these castaways from life's mainstream, whose situations have slid from dreary to dreadful Too bad that Leonard Foglia couldn't have brought it all in closer to the movie's 87 minutes.

That said, Mr. Foglia and a splendid crafts team have seen to it that The Gin Game is still a savvy blend of light and dark. Ricardo Henandez has created a wonderfully shabby set to symbolize the shivers of fear running through these people stuck in places from which there's no escape back to a time and place where they might undo the mistakes that have brought them here.

It's also a joy to see Tyson display the true card player's infallible strategy that never betrays her pose of the lucky amateur makes each triumphant declaration of "gin" a triumph of buoying the audience's spirit along with her own. There's no missing something other than the surface ladylike-Methodist decorum in all those "gin" and "knock: declarations. Mr. Jones gradually and assuredly builds his near apoplectic reaction into something as unsettling as it initially amuses.

The scene that I remember most from the 1997 revival in which Weller accepts Fonsia's invitation to a waltz is still the highlight. As Jones buttons up his suit jacket and after a tentative beginning takes her into his arms we see the man of substance he must have been before bad luck and judgment brought him to this ramshackle unused porch of a poor people's nursing home. Though he moves around slowly with a cane throughout he is remarkably nimble in this all too brief scene.

The climax is still somewhat too enigmatic and abrupt. But this Weller an Fonsia make it seem more believable than completely out-of-left-field.

While The Gin Game isn't expactly the new-new thing, the stories of older people continue to intrigue playwrights. In fact, I'll be reporting very shortly on another Pulitzer Prize winning playwright's new play — David Lindsay-Abaire's Ripcord which revolves around two cantankerous tenants in an Assisted Living Facility.

The Gin Game by D. L. Coburn
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Cast: James Earl Jones as Wenner Martin and Cicely Tyson as Fonzia Dorsey
Sets and Costumes: Riccardo Hernandez
Lighting: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound: David Van Tieghem
Hair: Paul Huntley Stage Manager: Jill Cordle
Running Time: 2 Hours, includes 1 intermission
Golden Theater 252 West 45th Street
From 9/21/15; opening 10/13/15; closing 1/10/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/13 press preview
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