NEW YORK – Except for last summer’s musical mega-hit “Hamilton,” most of the shows that have opened on Broadway this fall have been flops or revivals. It seems like an air of lugubriousness has taken over the Great White Way.
The best of the revivals is “The Gin Game,” written by D.L. Coburn. When it opened in 1977 with a flawless cast, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, it was staged by Mike Nichols, whose talent made this moderate play into a boffo work of art that won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Now it is back with another faultless acting duo, Tony winners James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, at the John Golden Theater on West 45th Street where it premiered. It is scheduled to close on Jan. 10.
Mr. Jones is playing the elderly, cranky codger Weller Martin, and Ms. Tyson is Fonsia Dorsey, a fastidious local senior lady. They are both alone, having landed in a drab, second-tier old folks’ home called the Bentley. They accidentally meet on the home’s dull-gray front porch while the rest of the residential clan is greeting Sunday visitors. Fonsia would like to be living at a nearby Presbyterian rest home, but since they ask for all your money before they allow you in, she said, “No.”
Fonsia was married for four years and has a son who moved to Denver. Weller has three children, but they left town with their mother after they divorced. Fonsia says she has chronic diabetes; Weller is in good health except for old age.
Weller has a main side interest: cards, and specifically the game of gin. Fonsia says she used to play cards occasionally, a game called rummy, so she guesses it was gin rummy. When Weller asks Fonsia to join him for a match, Weller brags that he is a master of the game, and she will be his fledgling player. Of course, it turns out that Fonsia is a fast learner, and she quickly humiliates Weller by winning the first game and several others.
Her one-upmanship and competitive spirit drive Weller crazy. Their rows are classic – like the sparrings of Shakespeare’s warring Petruchio and Katharina in “The Taming of the Shrew.” When Weller rages at Fonsia for always winning gin, his shoulders hunch a trifle, and she stands motionless listening to him rant. She’s not a shy person. She enjoys his company but doesn’t like his improper language or his fatuous talk. She also thinks he should see a psychologist.
In the 1977 Mike Nichols production, the play was directed more as a drama with a comic edge. Here, under the staging of Leonard Foglia, the production puts an emphasis on the comedy of the situation, and the audience seemed to enjoy it.
The set and costume designer is Riccardo Hernandez. Lighting design is by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
What brings the drama out in the end is the artistry of the two actors. Mr. Jones and Ms. Tyson are a rare pair of perfectionists. They never err. As co-stars they act together in perfect rapport; they demonstrate their unique and their extraordinary skills from understanding the characters they portray. For Mr. Jones, who is 84, and Ms. Tyson, who will be 91 in December, age has had no effect on their skills.
“The Gin Game” creates a fascinating picture of the human pressures that impinge on men and woman struggling on their own for some kind of existence against their “golden” years.
Mr. Jones and Ms. Tyson are great actors, and their performances are the joy of the fall season.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.