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The Gin Game

An up-and-coming company's first all-Equity production expertly plays a weak hand

"The Gin Game" won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for drama, in a thin field, because it examines an often neglected segment of the population in terms that used to be virtually taboo. The play treats old people unsentimentally, showing warts and complexities, often with a disarming, self-mocking humor - not to mention some fairly shocking language. This is a cause for admiration and an excuse to overlook gaping holes in the script. After establishing a promising relationship between its two characters, and then introducing a troubling obstacle, playwright D.L. Coburn fails to really develop or resolve either one.

Since it was premiered by Hume Cronin and Jessica Tandy, that great husband-and-wife team, this juicy vehicle has become a staple of regional and community theater. A television version, starring another pair of old troupers, Mary Tyler Moore and Dick van Dyck, is slated for broadcast on PBS in the spring of 2003. (That one has already caused some controversy, since PBS affiliates will be offered the choice of airing an unexpurgated version or one with the naughty words cut out.)

"The Gin Game" is a good choice for the Theater Project, a community-based company in West Springfield, Mass., that is steadily becoming more and more professional. Rand Foerster's assured production is the troupe's first all-equity effort, and it's a gem. The roles are played by two consummate pros, Kenneth Tigar and Margery Shaw. Together, they find all the laughs and all the chills in this very funny and very disturbing comedy-drama.

The play unfolds over three Sundays on the sun porch of a down-at-heel old-age home. Bev Browne's shabby, shadowy set, strewn with miscellaneous junk, is a metaphor for the place as a whole: a neglected corner where old, unwanted things have been discarded. It's visitors' day, but neither Weller Martin nor Fonzia Dorsey ever has any visitors. They are both in their seventies, both long-divorced, self-contained but lonely. Both are recently arrived residents of the home, and they share an amused contempt, both for the doddering oldsters who aren't as physically or mentally spry as they are and for the inept, condescending staff.

Weller is a gentleman of great charm, but with an irascible streak just below the surface and a pool of explosive anger lurking a little further down. The performance turns on the character's shifts of mood, and Tigar handles them perfectly, gradually revealing the character's crippling complexities, while at the same time giving us a demonstration of flawless comic timing. Weller is a devotee of gin rummy, and for want of more experienced competition, he teaches Fonzia to play. When she wins the first few hands, he's amused at her beginner's luck. But when she keeps on winning, and winning, and winning, Weller turns exasperated, and finally apoplectic.

Shaw shows us a sweet-tempered old lady who turns out to be hiding some unpleasant characteristics herself. Shaw's performance is engaging and nicely judged, but she struggles against the play's main flaw. As so often happens, the playwright's interest is largely with the male character. Fonzia is primarily a foil for Weller's needs and tantrums. Her character is underdeveloped, and the things we find out about her toward the end are completely unprepared for.

Ironically, "The Gin Game" is weakest in its emotionally explosive ending, as a genteel acquaintanceship turns to bitter accusations and painful revelations on both sides. But the disclosures are predictable, and both the dramatic issues and the relationship are left unresolved. This ending reportedly was a watered-down compromise with the playwright's original intention, tacked on in the original production. It makes hard work for the actors to pull it off. Fortunately, Tigar and Shaw succeed magnificently

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