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Broadway Reviews

The Gin Game

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 14, 2015

The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Scenic & costume design by Riccardo Hernandez. Light design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by David van Tieghem. Hair design by Paul Huntley. Cast: James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson.
Theatre: Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

Yes, you can love the players without loving the game or how they play it. This is crucial to remember when considering Leonard Foglia's new revival of The Gin Game that just opened at the John Golden (where the original production opened in 1977). The headliners of this version of D.L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize–winning play are James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, and as stage personalities they're as winning as ever. Just seeing these two Tony winners alone together promotes as much coziness as a warm winter comforter and a cup of hot chocolate in the depths of December. For lovers of genuine stars, it is indeed Christmas in October.

As for the play and what Jones and Tyson do with it, well, that's another matter. The Gin Game is clearly the product of a different age, structured and executed with absolute innocence, yet drawing many of its biggest laughs from seeing these two oldsters bicker, battle, and eventually swear at each other (and when it comes to the curse words, they're not afraid to go all the way), when they're not outright overturning tables and slamming things with canes. The combatants, Weller Martin (Jones) and Fonsia Dorsey (Tyson), are waiting out their twilight months at what's euphemistically termed "a home for the aged," and are determined to not go out quietly.

It's easy to see how, in 1977, the irritation of generational displacement from which the characters suffer could have been seen as insightful. Age was even more of a death sentence then, true, but at that time Weller and Fonsia were also adrift on an isolated island that stood as harsh reminder of the roiling social change that had gripped the country not even a decade earlier. The play could be rightly be seen as a eulogy for not just two elderly people, but their very way of life—and, implicitly, the culture and people they themselves helped forge.

Four decades on, those nuances no longer leap out at you from the script, which is at its best simple and at its more frequent worst slipshod. Scenes fade in and out seemingly of their own accord, and even the final scene, despite plenty of loud carrying on, feels like an afterthought that's reveling in its own unwillingness to tie things up the way the audience may wish. You need a greater exterior context for what happens here to mean anything, and that's something that Foglia, Jones, and Tyson have not really provided.

We meet Weller and Fonsia when they meet properly, some three weeks after Fonsia has arrived at the home (Weller has already been there a couple of months). She stumbles onto the disused back porch, on which piles of junk have been deposited as if a replacement landfill—or a reminder of the kind of refuse for which Weller and Fonsia could likewise be seen to qualify. (The gloomily homey set is by Riccardo Hernandez, who also did the costumes; the fine lighting is by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.) Fonsia has not yet fully acclimated to her new circumstances, so in order to give her a hand up and something to focus on, he introduces her to the card game gin.

"I'm one of the best damn gin players you'll ever see," Weller tells her at one point, though you wouldn't know from his performance against her: He loses immediately and keeps on losing, across the many days and weeks the play covers. And as her "beginner's luck" appears to morph into something more, the initially mild-manner Weller begins to lose what remains of his own sense of being civilized and reacts as though his very essence is being ripped out of him with every new hand they play. It is, of course, on some level. But what that level is you never quite discover at this production.

Though Tyson, who was last seen on Broadway two years ago in The Trip to Bountiful, brings an appropriate measure of despondent awe to Fonsia, she doesn't connect to much of anything deeper, which is odd given that she's playing a woman who can't deal with the increasingly likely fact she's been abandoned at this place (and isn't above apparently lying about it). And though Jones seemed fairly well together in the recent revival of the admittedly better-written You Can't Take It With You (which closed in February), here he has been notably less successful at creating a coherent personality for a man who needs to be simultaneously at the edge and over it for nearly every minute of the two-hour running time.

Perhaps more performance will help (the production is currently slated to close in January), but it's harder to get around The Gin Game demanding a certain energy and finesse that, perhaps, neither Jones nor Tyson can easily provide at 84 and 82 respectively. (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy originated the roles in their 60s; in the 1997 revival, Charles Durning and Julie Harris were in their 70s.) In addition to being a fairly physical show (particularly for Weller), it requires vocal production that effectively hits both quiet and thundering notes (even though they're heavily miked, these two can be hard to hear) and a strength of sensitivity that's not readily in evidence.

Still, there are pleasures to be found. Jones's take on bluster is, as always, thoroughly amusing; Tyson's beaming smile grants the proceedings a natural warmth that's hard to deny; and the two not only share a lovely chemistry, but project a charming physical contrast that adds back in some of the missing tension. (Tyson looks so small compared to Jones's towering figure, you can't avoid the onrush of triumph when she trumps him at cards.) And Foglia's staging, if tending toward the low-powered, directs the spotlight and your eyes exactly where you most want them to be: on the stars.

The magic of people like Jones and Tyson, though, comes from their ability to keep your gaze on them even when little else around them does. Even if the rest of The Gin Game stalls, at delivering that essential theatrical element, Jones and Tyson are an unvarnished success.

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