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He's in the Chips

Patrick Marber has evolved from down-on-his-luck gambler to the hottest playwright in London.

April 12, 1998|David Gritten | David Gritten, a regular contributor to Calendar, is based in London

LONDON — With only two plays to his name, being staged in the West End still feels like a novelty to Patrick Marber. But it doesn't mean the territory is unfamiliar to him.

A few days before the opening of his second play, "Closer," at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, in the heart of London's commercial theater district, Marber sat in an empty dressing room and reflected on the ironies of geography.

"It's strange being at this particular theater," he mused. "Because on either side of the street are casinos I frequented in my youth--the Golden Nugget on Shaftesbury Avenue, where I've lost more money than I care to think about, and the Charlie Chester Casino on Archer Street, directly behind the stage door.

"I can remember 10 years ago walking past the Lyric stage door, and the notion of a stage door was not in any way part of my life." Instead, he added with a bleak quip, the theater was part of a "golden triangle," bounded by the casinos and an automatic teller machine from which he would draw cash, then trudge back to the casinos and gamble that away too.

Back then, Marber was still a student at Oxford but an inveterate gambler. The habit, along with a weakness for alcohol, clung to him after university, when he embarked on a career as a stand-up comic.

"In those days I used to gamble with everything I had," he said with a sigh. "In my post-student days, I'd do comedy gigs, then go to a casino. I've done a bit of growing up. I'm a much happier person than I was then."

He has every reason to be. Marber, 34, is unquestionably Britain's hottest young playwright. His first two plays--"Dealer's Choice" and "Closer"--were staged at the National Theatre under his direction. They received rave reviews and were deemed responsible for attracting audiences who rarely attend the theater, many of them young metropolitan professionals.

The subject of Marber's former addiction has a resonance that is more than geographical. His first play, "Dealer's Choice," which has its West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum on Thursday, is specifically about gambling. Its third act consists of a poker game among all its characters--a middle-aged restaurateur, his son, two waiters, a cook and an enigmatic figure to whom the son owes money.

After being produced at the subsidized National Theatre, "Dealer's Choice" won the 1995 Evening Standard Award for best comedy, and when it later transferred to a commercial theater, it won the Writers' Guild Award for best West End play.

Critics virtually swooned, comparing the play favorably to the gambling-themed film "The Cincinnati Kid" and hailing an extraordinary debut. "Marber throughout plays his own hand with consummate dramatic skill," enthused the Guardian's Michael Billington. The success of "Dealer's Choice" was astonishing for two more reasons, the first being the fact that Marber also directed the play, something he had never done before. Then there was his unlikely background for a stunning new theatrical talent--after four years of limited success as a stand-up comic, Marber joined an ensemble including fellow comedians Armando Ianucci and Steve Coogan, appearing on British TV and radio in the shows "On the Hour," "The Day Today" and "Knowing Me, Knowing You." He stayed with the team for another four years, but nothing about his background suggested he would make such a splash in the theater.

Marber, a heavyset man with a calm, almost shy manner and mournful, strikingly blue eyes, which he keeps mostly downcast in conversation, insists he did not hold out to direct his own work.

"My directing career has really happened by chance," he said. "I wrote the first draft of 'Dealer's Choice' by putting a group of actors together and getting them to improvise stuff. Maybe the first half-hour of the play came from improvisations which I'd directed. I'd never directed before, but in my comedy background I'd been quite heavily involved in improvisation. That's how we generated a lot of material for the comedy work on TV.

"So when the National Theatre decided they wanted to put on 'Dealer's Choice,' Richard Eyre [then artistic director] asked me to direct. My instinct was to say no, but his argument was because of the particular way the play had evolved, I should take the risk.

"I hadn't thought of myself as a potential theater director till I found myself directing my first play at the National."

Quite a debut.

"I know," Marber said sheepishly. "I was much more nervous about my directorial debut than my writing debut. I'd written before, but I felt I was learning on the job as a director. I had experienced actors and a stage management team who were kind to me, if slightly wearied by my errors. I didn't know the language. I literally didn't know which way downstage was. But you pick it up."

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