Real-life married couple Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James engage in this dark comedy that is a theatrical tour-de-force at the S. Mark Taper Pavilion at Theatricum Botanicum.
An elderly man, Weller Martin (Alan Blumenfeld), dressed in an old robe and slippers, is playing solitaire on the ratty back porch of The Benley Home for the Aged in Detroit, Michigan, in 1977. It’s a seedy place dominated by a snarky nursing staff. As Weller plays, he grows angrier and angrier. It seems he just can’t win.
It is Sunday, visiting day, where music and laughter can be heard in the background just seems to make Weller angrier.
Enter a sobbing Fonsia Dorsey (Katherine James), a prim, self-righteous woman in her early ‘70s.
Weller and Fonsia strike up a tentative conversation. Slowly, Fonsia stops weeping and reluctantly agrees to a game of Gin Rummy. He gently teaches her the card game, though she may have played it years earlier, but she can’t “remember.”
Amazingly, Fonsia wins the first game, then every single one they play, causing Weller to repeatedly explode with anger. Fonsia is alarmed but also intrigued; in addition to winning hands at cards, she also has a few survival tricks up her sleeve.
Thus, for the next 90 minutes, Weller and Fonsia, using their cards as weapons and the game as a metaphor for life, thrust and parry, at times angry, at times sweet and tender.
Alan Blumenfeld is as versatile and comfortable with Shakespeare as with playing a grumpy old coot in a nursing home. He tackles his “difficult” character with a believability that had the audience leaning forward in their seats.
A company member of Theatricum’s repertory company for more than 30 years, Blumenfeld has graced the main stage there dozens of times, as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award), Gloucester in King Lear, and Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet.
Katherine James, who has also appeared at Theatricum in Heartbreak House, The Winter’s Tale, and Lysistrata, among others, imbues Fonsia with all the uptight, “vengeful” anger one can summon, yet allows her to occasionally soften and open to Weller’s charms—until his anger grows threatening.
Watching these two, the audience sometimes felt like voyeurs watching a private conversation between two extremely lonely people.
The performances—James, as she peels away and reveals the layers of Fonsia’s life, and Blumenfeld who holds on tight to Weller’s anger—lead to the heartbreaking realization that this is where they’ve come to die and strikes hard at the center of the play.
Adding to the veracity is the outdoor setting on a wooden stage under the oaks that provides the perfect setting for the play—complete with a rickety card table, folding chairs, and a deck of cards that has seen better decades.
Whether this co-production between two theater companies is a trend is yet to be seen. Originally performed last fall by Blumenfeld and James at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, and masterfully directed by Christian Lebano, it was an Ovation-recommended and highly acclaimed production. Re-staging it outdoors at Theatricum’s S. Mark Taper Theater was an experiment in collaboration for both theater companies. The Gin Game is a good play to start with.
In his program notes, Lebano says, “It is amazing how a play reveals itself in the hand of talented actors. Though it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, I never really “got” it until I directed it. Working on it with Katherine and Alan, I came to appreciate how masterfully constructed it is and how seductively it draws you in. Like all great plays, it is about the biggest themes: connection, loneliness, regret, love, and fate.”
This production is a triumph, because rarely does one have a chance to see a genuine Broadway-level masterpiece played out with such professional skill in their own hometown.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning play originally starred Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn and was later revived in 1997 with Julie Harris and Charles Durning.
For this production, Elizabeth Nankin created the perfect 1970s-era “senior outfits” right down to Weller’s robe and Fonsia’s dowdy dresses, shoes, eyeglasses, and sweater clip.
Kim Cameron’s expert Stage Managing kept all the moving parts in place, including the cues for Barry Schwann’s realistic music and sound effects.
The Gin Game runs weekends through September 29; $15-$38. Matinees start at 1 p.m. on the following dates: Saturday, August 24; Saturday, August 31; Saturday, September 14; Sunday, September 15; Saturday, September 21; Sunday, September 22; Saturday, September 28 and Sunday, September 29.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290. The S. Mark Taper Pavilion is terraced into the hillside; audience members are advised to dress casually and to bring sunscreen, water, a hat, and cushions for bench seating. Patrons are welcome to picnic before or after the performance.