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THEATER REVIEW : A Bar's Brash World of Small-Timers : Playwright Paul Hapenny's saloon serves up hangers-on, crazed gambling junkies and a tangle of con artists.

June 18, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times

Some of the best American plays take place in a bar. And now comes the tough, bookie drama "Vig," a real saloon- stomper, a have-one-for-the-road kind of play at, aptly enough, The Road Theatre, in the company's shiny new quarters at a high-tech industrial park in Van Nuys.

"Vig" is Yiddish slang for vigorish, or interest on a debt. You play the game at Vinnie's bar in Boston--the Red Sox, football, the horses, whatever--you gotta pay the vig. But the local car plant is history, and the locals have been slow to pay the vig to lovable ol' bookmaker Vinnie (the crusty Tom Finnegan), who seriously prides himself on being an honest crook.

"Don't you see," Vinnie cries in a dramatic monologue knifing through the enveloping moral squalor, "there is no honor anymore! Back when I started out you always ran an honest book. You didn't steal. You didn't cheat. But now it's all bottom line. Do anything, screw anyone for a lousy buck."

Playwright Paul Hapenny, who at his dad's neighborhood bar in Massachusetts grew up watching characters much like those in his play, writes sinewy, believable dialogue that really makes you feel you're in a theater, not a polite replica of a theater.

He creates varied, unpredictable characters despite the fact they are largely derivative. He writes much more knowingly about men than women. But he saves his strongest, bloodiest scene for a female--even if you do see it coming. (We will not give the scene away except to point old moviegoers to the Piper Laurie-George C. Scott vigorish in "The Hustler.")

With director Brad Hills deftly staging quick cuts under shifting pools of light by lighting designer David Flad, we are viscerally plunged into a brash, nervous world of small-time players, hangers-on, crazed gambling junkies and a tangle of Italian and Irish con artists.

There's a pathetically dependent, self-destructive couple (the hyper Dan Butler and the loyal Sheila Ferrini) whose addictions trigger chaos in this modern-day morality play.

And, coming on like a young John Garfield with a touch of James Cagney, the cocky, electric David Gianopoulos is explosive as the new scum on the block. A smirky coke-head who represents a new callow generation of organized crime, he moves in on Vinnie's laid-back bookie operation with a slicked-back grin and black topcoat to match his shiny hair and a street demeanor that's right out of Little Italy.

It's that kind of texture that propels this cue ball-hard play structured around the theme of honor.

The cast's vocal register and histrionics lurch out of control at times, some actors (particularly the manic Butler) confusing emotion with shrieking.

But anyone who has ever paid the vig will understand. Others, drawn to an atmosphere where shots of gin or whiskey and rolls of loose vigorish fill up the working day, may ruminate about an old crook's sense of honor and wonder at the self-deception.

In gamblers' jargon, it's the action, not the dough, that turns on their current. You want action? Try the "Vig."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Vig."

Location: The Road Theatre Company, 14141 Covello St., Building 9-D, Van Nuys.

Hours: 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, through July 18.

Price: $12.50.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Call: (818) 785-6175.

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