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The Gin Game

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in a scene from D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones                 (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

                                   By Eugene Paul


Weller Marin is a big, old crabass who likes to play cards but he’s such a short tempered, irascible son of a bitch always losing his temper and cussin’ up a storm that nobody in that old wreck of an Old Folks Home wants to play with him, so he sits out on the back porch where they pile all the furniture and wheel chairs and canes and walkers nobody’s using and sets up an old card table and takes his deck of cards out ready to play another unsatisfactory game of solitaire when who should walk back there but shy newcomer Fonsia Dorsey as dainty an old lady as you’d ever want to see and just a perfect candidate for Weller to sweet talk into playing a game of gin rummy.  Well, Fonsia doesn’t know beans about gin rummy so Weller curbs his impatience and explains the game to her and she catches on real fast, real easy.  Too easy, I thought.


And they begin to play.  Weller grabs an old wicker chair for himself and gives Fonsia an old kitchen chair and they’re off. He deals, of course, all easy, ready to take it easy on her.  And darned if she doesn’t get gin rummy right off the bat! Well, Weller (absolutely marvelous James Earl Jones) charms her into playing another hand and Fonsie – he’s already calling her by her nickname – enjoys the attention and, golly, wins again, just like that. Well, butter wouldn’t melt in Weller’s mouth setting up a re-match and butter sure wouldn’t melt in sweet as pie Fonsie’s mouth and off they go again into another hand of gin rummy. And since Fonsie is played by out and out adorable, sweet old Cicely Tyson (who’ll be 91 in a couple of weeks, for a fact) she’s starting to thaw out and really enjoy herself.  Only, she wins again!


And Weller blows. Only, not too bad because he wants her to hang around and play so’s he can show her a goddam thing or two, but Fonsie gets scared and skittish when this big old – way bigger than her –bull of a man starts cussin’. And that’s another thing: Fonsie doesn’t hold with any bad language at all, especially taking the Lord’s name in vain.  And old Weller reins himself in, promises to behave and please stay, Fonsie.  So, of course, she does.  And they’re starting to find out about each other and how they ended up in this place and, oh, dear, yes, Fonsie wins again.  And Weller goes bananas and carries on and the card table foes flying and Fonsie flees for her life.


James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in a scene from D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Well, if you think Act Two is going to be quieter and tamer, you are just fooling yourself, just like Fonsie who wanders back there – not to play cards, no, never again, especially with him, but Weller really turns on the charm and finds the card table where some staff person shoved it behind all that stuff and he couldn’t be sweeter.  So they play.  Only Weller fully expects her to win again because she put a whammy on him but he doesn’t really believe that because who would believe anything like that.  Only, she does win again.  And Weller is really beside himself, but he won’t let himself explode because he wants Fonsie to stay and play because he wants to beat her so bad.


Director Leonard Foglia has stitched his two star performers into a positively densely woven tapestry of built up laughs and bitter moments and just plain bitter so that you laugh all the harder after you’ve gulped a few times and James Earl Jones is a marvel of hilarity spun out of sadness and loneliness and curmudgeonness and you ache for him, oh, gollies.  And Cicely Tyson, well doesn’t she hide some life pain under that dainty demeanor and doesn’t she fly all apart when Weller flies all apart again.  Even to, oh, gees, bad language.


D.L. Coburn, who wrote his first play – this one – in 1976, won the Pulitzer. Ran forever. Well, it should.  Riccardo Hernandez deserves a medal for his setting, a sturdy but old, beat up house sadly in need of paint, a warehouse for old folks, drabber than hell. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer work their old black magic with lighting and sound designer David Van Tieghem does a little of the same.  It’s a funny, funny show.  But it’s a heart wringer.


The Gin Game. At the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street.  Tickets: $57-$141. 800-901-4092. 2 hrs.  Thru Jan 14, 2016.