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Senior moments, deftly played

May 03, 2003|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

A comedy pairing is like a marriage. Its partners must be sensitive to each other's moods. They must accommodate one another. They must trust without question.

Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore achieved this state of matrimony as the perpetually perplexed but sweetly attuned Rob and Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Sunday night, they achieve it again in their first major pairing since that show's conclusion in 1966.

In a 90-minute television adaptation of D.L. Coburn's 1977 play "The Gin Game," they portray lonely senior citizens who flirt with romance while playing the title game. An extraordinary winning streak prompts laughs even as it propels the story toward drama.

Girlish smiles bloom on Moore's face. Van Dyke's eyes turn sly as a fox's. She absently clamps a card between her teeth while arranging her hand, then can't figure out where she's lost it. He tosses his cane aside in a moment of vanity, then must dive for it when he realizes he can't get along without it.

Presented by PBS (the same network that broadcast the play with its original cast, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, in 1981), it's a wonderful opportunity to watch two masters at their craft, while revisiting one of the most poignant plays of the late 20th century.

The story unfolds at a rundown nursing home where Weller Martin (Van Dyke) and Fonsia Dorsey (Moore) are recent arrivals. Alone and unvisited, a tearful Fonsia retreats one afternoon to the sun porch, where Weller is huddled over a deck of cards. She looks frail and drawn, with gray, stringy hair. He's snowy white, peering over the top of his glasses. He invites her to sit down for a game of cards.

A courtship develops, and they arrive for subsequent games carefully groomed and dressed. Soon, they're behaving like an old married couple. But as Fonsia, a novice at the game, wins hand after hand, Weller's temper flares. He swears; she hardens. Bickering grows into outright hostility, the squalls precisely modulated under Arvin Brown's direction.

A study of relationships, "The Gin Game" is also an investigation of growing older in America. Weller and Fonsia have been forced to step aside from successful, productive lives. They're patronized or, worse, treated like children. They feel as though they're being warehoused until their bodies finally give out.

In a slight expansion of the original story, we're shown Fonsia's dispiriting arrival at the home and a nurse's hostile manner toward her. And we see hallways lined with residents silently staring off into private worlds.

Meanwhile, viewers may find it difficult to set Rob and Laura aside and accept Van Dyke and Moore as the prickly Weller and Fonsia. But let them take you someplace new, so that when Weller proclaims, "I'm still alive, damn it," you feel the full force of the fist hitting you in the stomach.


'The Gin Game'

When: Sunday, 9 p.m.


Rating: The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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