'Gin Game' playwright still dealing It's been 20 years since D.L. Coburn scored big with his Pulitzer-winning play, and he's still trying for a second hit.


November 15, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

D.L. Coburn used to be one nasty card player. Consider the time he was playing gin with a friend on a business trip in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

"This guy was beating the pants off of me. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't win no matter what I did. It was getting infuriating. It was getting late at night, but I had to keep him at that table," Coburn says, with just a hint of wicked delight in his voice.

"I looked up and saw the chandelier beginning to shake. I immediately knew we were getting tremors there, but I didn't say anything until he started to notice it, and I said, 'Shut up, Frank. It's an earthquake. Deal.'"

No question about it, Coburn was the same kind of card player as Weller, the hot-tempered gin player in his 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Gin Game."

"The Gin Game" - about the relationship between Weller and a fellow nursing-home resident whom he teaches to play gin - was the first script the Baltimore-born playwright ever wrote. Two decades later, the two-character play has been produced in countries from Argentina to Australia and had a major Broadway revival starring Charles Durning and Julie Harris (the two are repeating their roles on tour, which arrives at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday).

But Coburn's luck at playwriting has been a little like the cards he was dealt in that long-ago game in Mexico. "Don't ask. Really it's been a struggle. It's been just a terrible struggle," the 60-year-old writer says from his home in Dallas.

"I haven't had a major success or a success since 'The Gin Game,' even though I think I'm doing good work now. I did a pilot for CBS, a pilot for ABC. I've worked continuously through the entire time, and there's always been something going on, but if you're talking about major productions, that hasn't occurred."

Royalties from "The Gin Game" have made it possible for him to continue writing full time, even when his writing hasn't reached the public. There have been one or two full productions along the way, including a couple of one-acts in New York in 1991. And, he could have been more comfortable if he hadn't turned down $350,000 to sell the film rights to "The Gin Game" to Katharine Hepburn.

His resistance wasn't a fear of the film industry. He has, after all, written a few screenplays (which didn't get produced). But when it came to "The Gin Game," he explains, "I didn't think of the play as a film. I didn't want to make it. I thought it was a fulfilled entity as a play as it was, and I didn't want to go into opening it up and doing all the things one has to do as a film. I just felt I don't want the identity of this play to be vitiated or diminished. ... I want it to be a theater piece."

Instead, he agreed to have PBS film the original Broadway cast - Hume Cronyn and his late wife, Jessica Tandy. Three live performances were taped in London, then edited for broadcast.

In 1986, Coburn allowed "Annie" creator Martin Charnin to turn "The Gin Game" into a musical called "Jokers," which made its debut and swan song at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House. "I thought, the play is now established as a play, and I don't think this is going to overshadow the play," he says of the musical, which he never saw.

Coburn has been involved, however, in the Harris-Durning revival, attending rehearsals and even writing a new scene. The scene was Harris' idea. Inspired by the fact that Durning is an accomplished ballroom dancer, she suggested that Coburn consider adding a dance scene.

Coburn wasn't exactly open to the idea at first. "I told them I wouldn't do it," he says bluntly. "I was not going to do this with a play that's been in the repertory for 20 years."

Then one day he was listening to a Leonard Cohen song called "Take This Waltz." "It's a wistful piece," he says, "and that wistfulness kind of led me to seeing a moment where Fonsia [Harris] and Weller [Durning] get closer than they ever had, and I thought, you know, it would be nice to bring them that step closer together because then it would be that much more lost."

Harris is delighted with the result, which she describes as "a moment which is very romantic, which you don't have in the play hardly at all. You think these two people could really get together."

She's also quite taken with the theme of the play. "It's so true to human nature. I think what it tells you is: 'Be patient, be loving, show understanding, show concern for your fellow human beings, listen, be attentive, don't despair.' It says all those things. Don't throw any moment away," she explains.

"I always loved the play," the five-time Tony Award-winning actress says. "I think it's a perfect play - the way 'The Glass Menagerie' is perfect, the way 'Waiting for Godot' is perfect. Everything in each scene reflects something that is to come and or has been, and that's beautiful writing to me."

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