There is a lot of good work in "Liars Poker" at the Cast Theatre--nice acting, decent if unspectacular direction, even some individually well-written moments. But this Bernard Velinsky play that was workshopped in the Cast's Foundry series, is one more barroom slice of life that adds up to . . . not very much.
Perhaps the best thing in this tired tapestry of losers hanging out at Murphy's, a nondescript Manhattan bar somewhere in the vicinity of 71st, is the character of the Latino cook and bottle washer, Pedro (Santos Morales, who has a lovely quality but could be much more persuasive). He's the one non -stereotypical character, and comes with a refreshingly self-assertive speech about the significance of his own fruitful life amid this roomful of wasted souls.
Nicky (Jim Uhls) runs this two-bit enterprise grudgingly, it turns out, since his father died. He would rather be elsewhere, but he doesn't know where. Murphy's is populated by your standard regulars: Old Tommy (Richard Grant), a harmless lush, to whom Nicky is uncommonly kind; Duane (Bill Barker), a gay barfly who considers himself a cut above; Poagie (Stanley Brock), a loudmouth bookie who comes in to collect his drinks and his bets--and Becky (Lee Garlington at her finest), a neat lady with all the right instincts lost in these streets.
Tommy loves to play Liars Poker and Nicky likes to indulge him. It's become a social pastime that has caught on with the rest of the denizens, but then Billy (Van Quattro), Nicky's older brother, walks in the door after a long absence, and he begins to play another form of liars poker, this one with people's lives.
Again, the idea is not exceptionally fresh and it's handled here in a fairly commonplace manner. But beyond the dangers of the overly familiar, the main problem with Velinsky's play (he does have an ear for dialogue) is a lack of tension. In spite of a twist of plot that has us wondering briefly what is going on and what is or isn't true, there's no real sinew to the piece.
Something more needs to happen than all the verbal sparring, the ruminating and the boredom, and while William Lanteau's laid-back direction does little to fire up the ennui, it's Velinsky's script that's simply too pat.
The interaction among the characters is not complete and the play has few genuine surprises. It feels more like a parlor game we're invited to observe than a reflection of parading life. Our emotions are never seriously engaged.
Robert Farthing has done a good job of adapting the "Savage in Limbo" set for Murphy's (the plays share a split week) and Steven T. Howell's lighting is appropriately grubby, but this is a play still in need of a lot more development.
Performances at 804 N. El Centro Ave. in Hollywood run Mondays through Wednesdays, 8 p.m., until Aug. 19. Tickets: $8; (213) 462-0265.