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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Gamester is a Riot of Naughty Dalliances and Scandalous Situations

Also see Richard's reviews of Rita Moreno and 45 Seconds from Broadway

The Gamester
Anthony Fusco and René Augesen
The American Conservatory Theatre is presenting the riotous sexy and high stakes comedy, Freyda Thomas’ The Gamester, based on 17th century French playwright Jean François Regnard’s comedy of manners and character, Le Joueur. His five-act verse comedy was first produced on December 19, 1696 at the Comedie-Française and it satirized the French society's frenzied mania for games of chance. This playwright was the rage of Paris in the post-Molière era and he wrote good skeletal plots in the dramatic form of the day.

Playwright Freyda Thomas has written a contemporary adaptation of the comic send up of human idiosyncrasies, keeping the mainstay, such as rhyming dialogue. Thomas is the first playwright to bring the works of this little known French playwright to the American stage. She is also known for her witty and comprehensible verse translations of Molière’s plays, notably Tartuffe and The Learned Ladies.

Broadway director Ron Lagomarsino (Last Night of Ballyhoo, My Favorite Year and Driving Miss Daisy) has assembled a superb cast of actors in fantastic Beaver Bauer costumes reflecting the elegance of the affluent French society of the 17th century. The buffoonish acting of some the actors is first rate. Think of Molière’s plays, combined with Feydeau’s characters' moves, and you'll know what to expect. One can see both in The Gamester.

The Gamester had its premiere at Chicago’s Northside Theatre in April 2001 and it has also been presented by the The Repertory Theatre of St Louis. This is the third handsomely mounted production of the verse comedy of lewd jokes and model construction.

The farce centers around Jean Valère (Lorenzo Pisoni), a compulsive gambler deep in debt, who loves the beautiful and rich Angelique (Margot White). She wants him to give up this wild lifestyle, but his large gambling debts stand between him and his sweetheart. Valère’s father (Steve Irish) has the money but he refuses to give the cash to the son until he mends his ways. Loyal servant Hector (Gregory Wallace) manages to keep Valère's creditors at bay. There are many wonderful characters who weave in and out of the two-act production, including the sexually insatiable Mme. Sécurité (Joan Mankin), who will bed anyone from 18 to 80 (she states all men are the same in the dark), and widow Mme. Argante (René Augesen), who is also in love with Valère. Not to be outdone by the female characters, there is the ancient Dorante (Ron Campbell), who can hardly stand on his wobbly legs and wants the young Angelique for his very own, and the stammering and preening Fauxpas (Anthony Fusco), who is happy to be around any woman he loves. A merry mix of wonderful characters is prancing about the stage.

The Gamester's second act takes place in the Casino and is rich with disguises, secret alliances, naughty dalliances and a very wonderful ending reminiscent of a long musical that continues to tour all countries. Just think French and you will get it.

All of the actors in this fast-paced farce give radiant performances, right down to the minor roles and walk ons. Ron Campbell (founder of The Actor’s Gang and Buckminster Fuller) gives an outstanding performance as the ancient Dorante. His movements and speech inflections are hilarious. Anthony Fusco (A Mother, Les Liaison Dangereuses and The Three Sisters at ACT), with his outlandish gaudy yellow outfit with chicken feathers and his stuttering speech, is absolutely side splitting. Joan Mankin (The Three Sisters at ACT and member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe) as Madame Seurite, who loves sex and pinot noir in equal portions, is hysterical in the role and she does a beautiful calmed down introspection, lamenting her lost youth, late in the first act. Her last line in this lament of what a woman needs for sex when she reaches fifty is priceless.

Lorenzo Pisoni (Henry IV at Lincoln Center, Last Dance at Manhattan Theatre Club and the Ringmaster of Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère in Las Vegas) plays the gambler Valère as a robust young man who wants the best of all possible worlds. Pisoni is a former member of the Pickle Family Circus and he shows off his athletic ability in several scenes. Margot White (New York credits include Pericles and When They Speak of Rita) is properly demure as Angelique in the first act and does a good imitation of drag in the crazy second act. Steve Irish (New York and Los Angeles actor returning to ACT after 23 years) is excellent, with a booming theatrical voice, as Valère’s father.

American Conservatory Theatre core members René Augesen (The Real Thing, A Doll’s House and Celebration) and Gregory Wallace (A Doll's House, Waiting for Godot and The Dazzle ) give splendid performances. Augesen as Madame Argante gives a stylish performance and is very regal in her manner, compared to the antics of some of the other actors. Gregory Wallace gives a great comic imitation similar to the Jimmy Durante I remember when I worked in Hollywood. This comes out particularly in the second act. His acting is from the Catskills school of physical acting and is most effective.

Stacy Ross's Madame Préférée comes across as woman who still has a secret yearning for an affair with the young and handsome Valère, and she portrays the sexual frustrations of the older sister of Angelique very well. Andy Murray has one beautiful scene at the very beginning of the comedy as he comes out dressed in a beautiful 17th century French costume with a large baton to announce the play's opening. As is usual in this kind of play, the character is supposed to pound the heavy, wooden, six-foot-tall baton on the floor. What happens is hilarious and sets the whole tone of the play to follow. Lianne Marie Dobbs, who has been appearing in many TheatreWorks productions, does what she can with the small role of Betty the servant, while popular Bay Area actress Nancy Carlin appears as part of the ensemble, along with Gregory Crane.

Ron Lagomarsino has masterfully directed this production. The play runs smoothly on all cylinders and pacing is crisp and sharp. There is not one dull moment. The costumes by Beaver Bauer are scrumptious with outlandish wigs to match. Scenic Designer Kate Edmunds has devised a simple set: a giant Queen gaming card that slides to reveal certain interiors. The lighting by Nancy Schertler gives a modern feel to the play with neon lights that could be considered Las Vegas style.

The Gamester runs through February 6th at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

ACT's next production will be Lisa Kron’s Well which opens on Feb 11 and runs through March 13. ACT is also presenting the United States premier of Marie Ndiaye’s Hilda at the Zeum Theatre starting January 28 through Feb 26.


Photo: Ken Friedman


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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