D.L. Coburn's bittersweet Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Gin Game," is a drama about the basic interplay between a man and a woman. If the main characters were a few decades younger, instead of being senior citizens in a nursing home, the central plot device might be a sexual tango, not a card game.
But Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin are up in years and down at heel. The dozen or so hands of gin they play on the nursing home's dilapidated sun porch -- conveyed with ramshackle realism by set designer James Noone -- are their sole diversion and, as it turns out, their sole means of communication.
In the touring production at the Mechanic Theatre, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, it is clear from the start that few people have ever more directly and literally cursed the cards life dealt them than Weller. Portrayed by Charles Durning, a large lump of a man, as a cantankerous old coot, Weller can't even deliver the line "I'm not looking for a fight" without spitting out the word "fight."
Yet Durning has an unfortunate tendency to mumble, especially in the rare moments when his character reveals something about his personal life. Mumbling may be an appropriate trait for Weller in these instances, but it is a trait that is never effective if it renders dialogue unintelligible on stage.
As Weller's reluctant partner, Fonsia, Julie Harris delivers a beautifully layered portrayal. Gentle-seeming at first, her Fonsia turns out to have a core so hard and brittle, it has done irreparable damage to her closest relationships.
Coburn, a Baltimore native, wrote a new scene for this Broadway revival, and it adds a lovely lyrical note -- a brief, hopeful interlude in which the protagonists are true partners instead of combatants.
There are also some small additions to the staging and performances that prove effective and amusing. Harris' Fonsia is adorable, chattering to herself a mile a minute as she apologetically relives one of her unstoppable winning hands. And Weller does a hilarious bit, using his cane to push a bedpan across the floor to catch drips from a leaky roof. But Durning also has a tendency to give in to shtick, making Weller seem more like a sitcom-y Archie Bunker than a fully realized theatrical character.
Although it is about playing cards -- in which winning is everything -- ultimately "The Gin Game" reinforces an old cliche. What really matters, Coburn's script says, is how you play the game. This production plays it earnestly, if a bit unevenly. See it for Coburn's finely drawn characterizations and especially for Harris, who is a winner in the very best sense.
'The Gin Game'
Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, with matinees at 2 p.m. tomorrow and 3 p.m. Sunday
Pub Date: 11/20/98