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The Gin Game

Review by Tulis McCall
18 October 2015

What becomes a legend most? GIN. Or in this case The Gin Game with Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. Four decades after it opened on Broadway this is a story that has lost none of its poignance or its punch.

Weller (Jones) and Fonsia (Tyson) have found themselves holding on to the short end of the stick in a home for the aged that has no location or time. Life has come up empty, but these two are still tilting at windmills and will not go gently into that good night.

Weller spends his days sitting on the porch playing solitaire until Fonsia appears. Both are relative newcomers to this place, but not to the reality of their situations. They fly through the unpleasantries of their mutual situations. Weller tells Fonsia:

"You do have to go somewhere. If you live long enough, sooner or later you end up in one of these places."

Rather quickly, however, Weller sees Fonsia as the answer to his unspoken dream: a card partner.

Fonsia, and this is the tricky part here, says she has a vague knowledge of the game. Weller explains the rules and counts out the cards with the deliberate attention of a brain surgeon calling for instruments. They glide through the first hand and Fonsia displays no knowledge of card playing protocol. Within a few minutes, however, she lays down her hand and declares 'Gin!" Weller takes this as beginners luck and soon they are on a roll of the best 2 out of 3 etc. Fonsia wins again. And again. And again. And Weller becomes less the gallant than the bitter lonely man he is.

The Gin Game is reduced to what all card games are, a way to peel away a particular spot on the spine of our personality. Me, I have a hard time with card games because I hate losing. Especially when there is calculation going on in the heads of the other players. What are they thinking and what should I do about it and how can I play my hand at the same time? Weller is not confused so much as he is directly connected to his true and deep anger about how life dumped him off the band wagon. Gin is his way of restoring his claim on a sliver of the planet called the back porch of the home. When Fonsia denies him that by her luck as a Gin player, life falls apart for Weller.

Weller and Fonsia are like the last two people on earth. They have been exiled from society because they have no money. They exile themselves from their fellow "inmates" because they are too depressing. They exile themselves from visiting days because the well-intentioned can be thoughtless and cruel. Fonsia and Weller cling to one another and repel one another at the same time. When they reach an intimate moment Weller is compelled to bring out the cards once again. And in each game there is a small death because Fonsia is killing his card skills. Fonsia returns to the back porch again and again like a moth to a light bulb. She cannot stay away, even though she knows they will end up playing cards and everything will fall apart when they do.

This production does nothing to interfere with Coburn's writing, but neither does it elevate the story to a new level. James Earl Jones is anchor and center of this play. He is smooth as silk when Weller is on course, and watching him succumb to the power of the cards is a thing of beauty and deep sadness. Tyson on the other hand seems more caricature than character, especially in the early minutes of the play. She is intent on moving about like an "old person" which belies the fact that she is playing a woman ten years her junior. Eventually, these two hit their stride together. Their partnership onstage is comforting, if not necessarily elevating.

The Gin Game is, on a larger scale, about addiction and abuse. Because D.L. Coburn hides it in behind the mask of old age, it is easy to miss at first. After all, these are old folks who we don't have to take too seriously, right? They are quaint. They are adorable. Or irascible. In any case, they are no threat to us or to our thinking. Au contraire. Fonsia and Weller are us. Ultimately we, if we live long enough, will be at the same threshold. And what will we do when we get there?

(Tulis McCall)

"James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, who are playing these roles in the excellent Broadway revival of Mr. Coburn's flinty comedy, still seem to be in their glowing prime, actors with long and distinguished careers behind them who nevertheless keep seeking further heights to scale."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times

"Under Leonard Foglia's direction, Tyson and Jones hit all the right notes of charming, amusing, ornery and scary. Along the way Jones and Tyson hold you, like the cards, in the palm of their hands."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"D.L. Coburn's play was a hit in 1976, but it's thin as a needle, with a sharp point at the end on which its poignancy relies."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

"Handsome and beautifully acted revival."
Mark Kennedy for Associated Press

"Hats off to any actors who can manage seven performances a week at the respective ages of 84 and 90, but the co-stars of The Gin Game are doing it with such verve that the insubstantiality of the vehicle hardly matters."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

"It's true what they say about bona fide stars like Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones — they could indeed hold us spellbound simply by reading the New York telephone book. Not that 'The Gin Game' is as insubstantial as the contents of the phone book. But despite having won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for scribe D.L. Coburn, this two-hander really is a slip of a thing, elevated to dramatic art by captivating Broadway performances from two of the most enchanting actors you'd ever hope to see on the same stage."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out - Associated Press - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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