Theater Review: THE GIN GAME (Starring JoBeth Williams and Joe Spano at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura)

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by Marc Wheeler on March 30, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

DEADWOOD OR GIN?

Fine actors of stage, television, and film, JoBeth Williams and Joe Spano unite their decades of work and talent to kick off a national tour of The Gin Game at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. Yet even with such names filling the stage in this intimate two-hander, D. L. Coburn’s tragicomedy is sure to divide its audiences. While some will likely find the work rather slight, others, I assume, will appreciate a “sleight of hand” towards something deep and unsettling. Over two full acts, a man and woman — both perfect strangers until now — play multiple rounds of gin rummy. Like the card players themselves, the play keeps its own cards close to the chest. But when the players begin to reveal their own hands in life, plays are made against each other. Life’s now imitating the art of the game. But to what end?

Directed here by Jenny Sullivan, The Gin Game – Coburn’s first play ever – was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1978. It opens on a sun porch where we find an older gentleman, Weller Martin (Joe Spano), playing cards, alone. At first glance, the set (designed and lit beautifully by Mike Billings) appears rustic — charming even. As we look around, however, we see discarded items like an unused fridge, ladder, and oxygen tank strewn about. All are in states of decline — like many of the lower-class residents of the Bentley Nursing Home, the play-long setting of the piece.

As Weller plays solitaire, in walks Fonsia Dorsey (JoBeth Williams), crying. Weller invites her over for a game of cards: there’s not a lot to do here, and playing gin with a stranger seems more useful than crying — grab a chair. Emmy Award-winning Spano, most known for his roles on Hill Street Blues and NCIS, plays the retired businessman with curmudgeonly know-how. As he explains the rules of the game to Fonsia, it’s clear he’s found purpose in the tragic Lil’ Miss before him. While his new friend — and instant opponent — claims to have stayed up playing cards until the wee hours as a kid (a “no-no” in her conservative, religious household growing up), now in her later years she can barely remember not to flash her cards at him. This is going to be easy for Weller — and fun! Until she beats him, that is. Then beats him again. And again. And again. And again. Fonsia Dorsey can’t help herself, you see, she’s just playing the cards she’s been dealt. A dumbfounded Weller has met his match — and emasculation.

In Fonsia, the Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe Award nominee JoBeth Williams (Poltergeist I & II, The Big Chill, Kramer vs. Kramer) creates an empathetic woman quick to the draw, oblivious — or is she? — to her power over Weller. As the battle between them heats up, however, she feeds off his fury and profanity-laden tirades, uncovering darker layers in her own story. Even so, some cards are still kept close. The Gin Game keeps much of Fonsia and Weller’s backstories hidden, leaving audiences to draw our own conclusions. What the duo have in common, however, are family members that don’t visit them on visitors’ day, and a need for hope, companionship, and — wherever and however they can find it — a raison d’être as they whittle away in their remaining days.

Hanging over every card game is the looming reality that these two lost souls have very little to call their own. Their options are limited. Their relationships are strained and few. And as every frail person around them reminds them, their bodies and minds are breaking down. While in some ways Fonsia and Weller feel better-off than many of the facility’s ailing residents, their days are just as numbered. This is what makes their increasingly bitter needling — and needing — of each other even more tragic.

But not all is gloomy. Laughs are plenty, especially in the play’s front-end when the two become endeared with one another. Kudos to costume designer Alex Jaeger for dressing them up so smartly on their second meeting — a clear indication by both to impress. To heighten our duo’s connection, director Sullivan has chosen to include in this production an optional dance scene between Weller and Fonsia. Added to the 1997 Broadway revival at the request of actress Julie Harris (she wanted to show-off the dancing skills of her scene partner, Charles Durning), the scene — first directed by Charles Nelson Reilly — is now viewed by Coburn as integral to his work. In it, Spano and Williams are able to display a tenderness their characters are mutually seeking; a beauty for life that’s all too rare in their nursing facility that — as Weller opines — numbs its residents with constant activities like choirs and magicians to make them all forget their depressing reality.In displaying such truth, Coburn’s play becomes an example of art imitating life. It’s largely monotonous, with each round of gin offering similar results, glued by unlayering banter. It’s a slow build, for sure, with most of the intensity occurring in the second half — and even that isn’t as satisfying as it has the potential to be. The work can be as tedious and uneventful as the day-to-day lives of the nursing home residents themselves. But perhaps some will find this purposeful — a sort of meta-commentary on the true-to-life final days awaiting so many lonely souls, especially those without close familial ties.

The Gin Game is the Rubicon’s first play since the pandemic — a pre-season special event. Set on the porch of a rundown nursing home, it could be a peculiar choice to welcome audiences back into the theater given how Covid left many feeling trapped at home. Or perhaps that’s what makes it kinda perfect. Yet, I left the theater feeling puzzled and underwhelmed. What have audiences found so special about this work? Something, somewhere, is missing. It retreads its own material and never really takes off. Nor do its themes and metaphors crystalize in clear and satisfying ways. On a positive note, however, it was a treat to watch two acting titans — both in their 70s — command an intimate stage, even if moments of physical aggression play a little too safe and careful. Perhaps, at its core, The Gin Game plays best as existential horror. In ways subtle and lurking, it reminds us of the importance of maintaining quality relationships before end-of-life decisions are made. Admittedly, such thoughts have quietly lingered in my mind long past curtain.

photos by Jenny Graham

The Gin Game
Rubicon Theatre Company
1006 E. Main Street in Ventura
Wed at 2 & 7; Thurs at 7; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on to April 3, 2022
for tickets, call 805.667.2900 or visit Rubicon

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