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You may have gathered, from friends’ reports or from the mostly friendly reviews of its recent Broadway run, that The Gin Game deals with agingand not necessarily with the graceful kind. That’s true, as far as it goes, but D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy is at least as much about being old-fashioned as it is about being old; the play was written in the late ’70s, but its style is from so far out of the past that the curtain actually goes up and down between scenes. What happens between rise and fall, moreover, is the theatrical equivalent of home-cooked comfort food, a guiltily satisfying casserole liberally flavored with the salt of writerly asperity and the rich ham of actorly indulgence.
Julie Harris, as delightful as her stage-legend reputation promises, and Charles Durning, himself a crafty and impressively accomplished performer, aren’t the slightest bit ashamed of their showboating, either: Durning sets the tone right away with a broadly funny bit about how hard it is for his character, at such an age and girth, just to get out of his customary chair on the back porch of the rather desperately seedy old-folks home that he’s been forced into. All told, he probably leaves more bite marks around the periphery of the Eisenhower Theater stage over the course of the evening, but both he and Harris seem to have been given free rein to indulge every last urge to dither and roar, fidget and fulminate, natter and bluster, and weep and spew bile. And boy, oh boy, is it great to watch such effortless craft.
The arrival of Harris’ Fonsia Dorsey at the home gives Durning’s Weller Martin someone like an equal to talk to, a break from “the glassy-eyed old bastards” who inhabit what is, in his bitter, snarling assessment, “a warehouse for the physically and emotionally dead.” As far as we’re allowed to see, anyway, they’re the only two inmates who haven’t given in to the loneliness, the despair, the drugged drudgery of an existence shoved into life’s periphery.
Fluttery and grandmother-warm, Fonsia is clearly looking for someone to connect with on a personal level; Weller, gruff and sarcastic and short-tempered as only a pissy old bachelor can be, seems to be looking chiefly for a partner to play gin rummy with. Early on, though, Coburn gives him a bit of business that indicates just how restless he is:
Standing at the edge of their porch/prison, he checks his watch, shuffles his feet, waits impatiently for the train that runs by the back of the property. Coburn doesn’t tell us whether it’s a freight or a passenger express, and it doesn’t really matter; whether it carries people or just metaphorical cargo, it represents momentum and at least a momentary vitality. In what’s clearly a ritual daily gesture, Weller waves heartily as the locomotive roars by, and his eyes go flat and dead after it passes. It’s an obvious gimmick, but an effective one; to Durning’s credit, he makes it a powerful moment.
These two click, after a fashion, as Weller teaches Fonsia the rudiments of gin and she trounces him repeatedly in an exhibition of the most revolting kind of beginner’s luck, and the audience is allowed to hope that they’ve found some kind of solace amid the discomforts of their less-than-ideal old age. But The Gin Game turns out not to be quite that old-fashioned; Coburn offers Fonsia and Weller not a happy ending but a struggle to a bitter end; age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom, he wants us to know, and there’s no guarantee that anyone will learn from a lifetime of mistakes. Fonsia and Weller destroy their chance at a golden-years friendship by hurting each other in the same ways each has been hurting others for years, but this time, one of the hurts turns out to be a mortal wound.
It’s a surprisingly sobering twist in such an otherwise traditional comedytoo surprising, really, to be persuasive as written, and played here in a way that renders it unconvincingly sudden. Coburn seems to have left it up to the director and performers to hint, in the basically lighthearted first act, at the darker developments of the second. In this otherwise lovely production, things are simply too comfortable for too long.
The deceptive coziness grows in part from the handsomeness of the physical production. James Noone’s graceful back porch and messy but comfortable patch of garden hint at a home (a farmhouse? some sprawling colonial pile?) that’s aging more gracefully than the script insists, and Kirk Bookman’s lighting only underscores an air that seems more summery than autumnal. (Do the fake moths that flutter distractingly around the porch light really add anything, though?)
More destructive to Coburn’s intentions is the way director Charles Nelson Reilly (yes, the same Charles Nelson Reilly) lets his admittedly deserving stars play so successfully for the audience’s affections. Durning mines Weller’s sore-loser tantrums for indulgent laughs, and Harris, glorious creature, is perhaps too much like the grandparent everyone wants or wants to become; her Fonsia has little of the rigid, judgmental quality for which Coburn and Weller will eventually condemn her. It’s so easy, it seems, to love these actors, but for the play to be entirely successful we should only want to love their characters. The distinction hasn’t quite been made here.
The trouble with what some irreverent friends of mine have been calling “the all-chick Taming of the Shrew” at Washington Shakespeare Company isn’t that the actresses are sucking up to the audience. It’s that Delia Taylor’s ambitious approachwhich sets the play in Paris circa 1940 (the Maginot line has just collapsed) with a coterie of literary Left Bank women acting out the parts of sharp-tongued maidens, sweet-talking suitors, and butter-wouldn’t-melt coquettes alikehasn’t entirely tamed a troublesome play. Taylor and dramaturg Cam Magee (one of the area’s shrewdest and most sensitive adapters of Shakespeare) have expanded the comedy’s most celebrated odditythe seemingly pointless opening “induction” that sets up the main action as a play-within-a-play but doesn’t return at the end to become a full-fledged framing deviceinto a more consistent gimmick that lets the players comment on dialogue, character, and plot throughout. Our heroines turn the lights of bold feminism, unapologetically transgressive sexuality, and the risky, can-do attitudes of wartime on the text, looking for new ideas and interpretations in the shadows they cast.
It’s an intriguing attempt at deconstruction that works better than some skewed Shakespeare I’ve seen, though I can’t say it helped me find wondrous new messages of liberation in the play, which, despite all of Taylor and Magee’s efforts, still seems content to pat women on the head and encourage them to be good girls. The production is far more successful in terms of its look (gorgeous, what with Michael Murray’s towering library set and Edu. Bernardino’s chic costuming) and its performances, which range from delightfully comic (including Kathryn Van Meter in an outrageous range of small parts) to gracefully assured (Kate Norris).
It’s not in any way a failure, though, and dedicated Shakespeare fans will like this Shrew best for the risks it takesand the rewards it offers the most diligent of them, who will have seen its sensually manipulative Bianca (Jessica Kate Meyer) in the role once before during the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express’ residency at the Folger last year. What’s even more fun, in that self-referential spirit, is that the same repertory offered this production’s Petruchio (Norris) as both a convincingly dictatorial Richard III and a fiercely independent if rather more traditional Kate in Shrew.
There’s an idea: Now that she’s proved she can play both lead roles, let’s give this increasingly impressive actress a postmodern one-woman adaptation of Shrew in which she attempts to tame herself. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that she could do it.CP