Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin are old. They have, like so many elderly people, been abandoned to the American health-care system and have landed in an old folks' home where they meet one Sunday afternoon. He's a crotchety codger, she's a peevish fuddy-duddy, and, for two hours plus intermission, they make old fogey chatter of the most idle variety.
In the right hands, The Gin Game is a splendidly cynical study of the fate of old folks. As produced by the fledgling Algonquin Theater Company, however, D.L. Coburn's dramatic comedy is a drowsy disappointment. Bungled by its director and underacted by its players, Coburn's Pulitzer Prize winner plays out awkwardly and misses its melodramatic mark.
Successive hands of gin serve as the dramatic axis for this two-character play, which takes place on the porch of the Bentley Home for Seniors. Fonsia and Weller are both proud to be the healthiest residents there, and they strike up a tentative friendship in part because no one ever comes to visit them. Their gin game -- which she is just learning and which he never can win -- becomes a metaphor for the mistakes and hardships of their (and presumably our) lives. As the game progresses, the pair becomes progressively more childlike and combative, more complex and less like the stereotypical oldsters we've learned to ignore. The Gin Game is a chatty, unsentimental look at morality and the loneliness of old age.
A subtle, smooth blend of light and dark is the power behind Coburn's story, and it's been well-captured before -- by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn on Broadway in 1977, and in a recent revival starring Julie Harris and Charles Durning and directed by Charles Nelson Reilly. But the Algonquin production flounders, thanks in large part to Joe Flowers' feeble direction. He rarely reins in his players' rangy performances, so that Weller's mad mood swings are never apparent -- instead, he appears always angry. Worse, it's obvious that Thom Morrison and Judy Eisenberg are playing people 20-odd years older than themselves. Both are too spry and fleet-footed, although Eisenberg occasionally appears stooped with age. Morrison's Weller shuffles on a cane like an Olympic athlete, which deflates his most telling moment: When Weller asks Fonsia to dance, he is suddenly nimble, and we glimpse the man he was before age and misfortune hobbled him. But Morrison is always agile, so this brief and powerful transition is lost.
Jeb Johnson's harsh lighting reveals the uncredited makeup designer's clumsily drawn wrinkles as well as every cranny of Ron Hunting's crowded set, which looks less like a run-down porch than a tag sale in a storage locker.
The production literally fizzles in its final moments, when it's unclear exactly what has befallen our cranky hero. Weller might be dying -- or is he just really sad? The answer's in the script, but not, as blocked by Flowers and enacted by Morrison, apparent on the stage as the curtain comes down.
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