The Gin Game

National Actors Theatre

at the Royal George Theatre Center

A Talent for Murder

Drury Lane Dinner Theatre

By Albert Williams

In D.L. Coburn’s comedy-drama The Gin Game, now playing at the Royal George, old-timer Weller Martin sneers at third-rate stage magicians who entertain at retirement homes; the illusionists get away with their cheap tricks, he opines, because “half the audience is shaking so goddamn bad they can’t focus and the other half’s asleep.”

Sadly, the same attitude toward the audience seems to prevail in plays concocted for actors of a certain age. Designed to capitalize on their stars’ crusty charm and nostalgic appeal, these vehicles claim to be as roadworthy as the vintage autos proverbially driven by little old ladies from Pasadena–and some are, such as Alfred Uhry’s sensitive, skillfully written Driving Miss Daisy. But too often these scripts are nothing more than theatrical lemons, cobbled together in the apparent belief that neither the performers who drive them nor the viewers who pay for the ride will notice. Unfortunately The Gin Game–a 20th-anniversary revival of the Broadway hit that starred Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, now featuring Julie Harris and Charles Durning–is such a work. So is Jerome Chodorov and Norman Panama’s A Talent for Murder, which starred Claudette Colbert in its 1981 Broadway premiere and is receiving a deservedly rare revival with local notable Sharon Carlson.

Directed by Charles Nelson Reilly for the National Actors Theatre, a nonprofit New York-based company founded in 1991 by Tony Randall, The Gin Game tracks the relationship of Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, fellow inmates–sorry, residents–of a run-down old-age home. Sunday afternoons are particularly difficult for Weller and Fonsia–it’s visitors’ day, a painful reminder that they’ve been discarded by family and friends. So Weller, a veteran resident, invites Fonsia, a newcomer, to join him in a game of gin rummy. And then another game, and then another and another. Weller’s a compulsive card player who can’t stand losing–he even cheats at solitaire–while Fonsia’s a novice but a natural; every time she wins, which is every time, Weller deals another hand, determined to beat her at his own game.

In the mostly comic first act, The Gin Game mines some effective shtick out of the way Weller wheedles Fonsia into game after game: she’s increasingly distressed at the bad manners elicited by her ingenuous victories. And with old pros Harris and Durning at their most ingratiating, the characters carry on a pleasantly rambling conversation that touches on their personal problems, suggesting more than it exposes about failed marriages and absent children, physical infirmities and nameless terrors, before it’s cut off by Fonsia’s abrupt, inevitable declarations of “Gin!”

But as the play becomes more serious it’s also less convincing: after a detour into sweet sentimentality–the two lonely oldsters dance to the strains of offstage music–The Gin Game turns calculatedly ugly. Weller’s increasingly foulmouthed requests for rematches reveal his obsessiveness and self-destructiveness, while dithery, genteel Fonsia succumbs to an instinct for vindictive self-righteousness. But the character flaws Coburn reveals never transcend their ties to the petty card-table conflict; instead of fully developed drama we get a couple of character sketches.

Cronyn and Tandy could bring to this material the unique radiance and tension of their own real-life relationship; Harris and Durning, though effective individually, never establish the mutual connection that could make the play’s contrivances come to life. The final scene, in which Weller loses control and starts bellowing “Gin!” at Fonsia while smashing the table with his cane, comes off as a display of histrionics rather than a moving revelation of his life of failure. The contrast between Durning’s huge bulk (Weller’s comical outbursts recall Jackie Gleason’s classic Ralph Kramden sketches) and Harris’s delicacy (which has brought poignancy to her best stage and screen work) suggests a dangerous physical side to their confrontations–this Gin Game threatens to become a study of domestic violence rather than a tragicomedy of wasted lives. The play’s intended sense of dreariness and pathos is conveyed far more effectively by James Noone’s realistic set–a decaying wood porch surrounded by bare branches and a leaf-covered lawn–and Kirk Bookman’s autumnal lighting than by anything the playwright or actors do.

A Talent for Murder, with its central friendship between a female mystery writer and her doctor friend, is billed as the play that inspired Angela Lansbury’s long-running television series Murder, She Wrote. But the TV show had occasionally witty dialogue, halfway believable characters, and coherent plotting–elements notably lacking in Chodorov and Panama’s inept effort, with its fatally muddled story.

Novelist Anne Royce McClain is an unabashed eccentric who smokes cigars, belts down brandy, and starts fires in her wastebasket as a result of the other two habits. Her hateful family is plotting to have her committed so her lavish, art-filled home doesn’t go up in flames; any concern about Anne’s personal safety is decidedly secondary. But Anne puts the schemers to shame–and one of them apparently to death–with the aid of a home-security system whose apparently endless capabilities left me more than a little confused (it includes a secret recording component that Nixon would have envied). The playwrights’ reliance on technical gimmickry rather than Anne’s deductive powers is especially clumsy in this in-the-round revival by the Drury Lane Dinner Theatre, which lacks the design resources to make the mechanics clear.

Leading lady Carlson, far too young for the part of Anne, takes a role that requires Colbert’s ironic, elfin elegance and makes it both mean and mannish; Anne’s taste for cigars suggests a modern-day George Sand, but here she comes off like Ma Barker. The supporting performances range from mediocre (Dale Benson as Anne’s doctor-companion and Donald Brearley as her weak son) to Scott Calcagno’s stupid, offensive caricature of a mincing Indian valet. Everyone here is capable of much better work; I suspect the problem lies with director David Mink’s flat-footed pacing and heavy-handed attempts to hammer home what little humor he could find in this dismal script.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Gin Game theater still by Carol Rosegg; A Talent for Murder uncredited theater still.