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THEATER REVIEW

'Gin Game' Stacks the Deck

Pulitzer winner exploits the volatile relationship between two characters.

March 20, 1997|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Life has dealt losing hands to the pair of elderly characters in "The Gin Game," D.L. Coburn's slight Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a couple of lonely people who find themselves warehoused in an old-age home.

Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey meet on a patio, crack grim jokes full of gallows humor about the vegetative state of their fellow tenants and commiserate about the patronizing attitude of the staff. He, a retired businessman and self-styled expert at gin rummy, cajoles her into playing cards to pass the time, only to find himself at wit's end when she, a prim matron who barely knows an ace from a deuce, keeps beating him.

The two-character play is being revived by International City Theatre at the Center Theater, where it opened Friday with Jack Axelrod as Weller and Patricia Place as Fonsia. Axelrod was still "on book"--that is, referring to the script for his lines--having joined the production just the week before to replace an actor who had become ill during rehearsals.

Explaining the change to first-nighters, ICT artistic director Shashin Desai, who staged the play, promised that Axelrod was already so good in the role we'd hardly notice his use of the script. And, in fact, the production is lucky to have such a canny actor.

But "The Gin Game" is mildly entertaining at best. Axelrod's colorful performance notwithstanding, this revival reminds us that 1977-78 was not a great year for plays even if it did get a Pulitzer while serving as an acting vehicle for Jessica Tandy (who won a Tony Award) and Hume Cronyn (who was nominated for one) on Broadway.

Coburn tries to use the gin game as a dramatic metaphor to illuminate the lives of both Weller and Fonsia but, in the end, merely exploits it as a trigger for the changing moods in the volatile relationship between the two characters.

Weller fumes when Fonsia wins, becoming cantankerous and foul-mouthed and finally insulting her. Fonsia, reluctant to call "gin" at first, eventually takes a spiteful pleasure in frustrating him. Their reactions, of course, reflect how they've dealt with life in the past. But the play concludes on an unresolved note, not ending so much as simply coming to an unsatisfying halt.

As Fonsia, Place gives a creditable, though lackluster, performance. While avoiding the fluttery charm that would make the role easier to embrace on the surface, she nevertheless underplays the buried motivations that would make Fonsia believable as someone embittered and unloved.

Set, costumes and lighting are exemplary. The playbill wrongly credits "The Gin Game" with a Tony Award, however. The winner for best play that season was Hugh Leonard's "Da," another geriatric study.

BE THERE

"The Gin Game," Center Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 16. $26-$34. (562) 436-3661. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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