Beatrice “ADrop in the Bucket” is a cautionary comedy about gambling, and therein lies the problem. Compulsive gambling can be a laughing matter, no doubt; Joe Orton and John Guare have made us laugh at ghastlier failings. But you wouldn’t expect those fellows to toss in an earnest social message to make their stories more palatable.
In his new play, however, New Yorker Edward Belling has concocted one such uneasy hybrid. The first half is a mildly winsome carpe diem tale about a couple of widows rejuvenated by twice-weekly pilgrimages to Atlantic City. Gambling transforms Bea (Barbara June Patterson) from a frugal, self-denying recluse to a liberated granny who lives life with gusto. For Doris (Shirley Venard), the casino is an elusive lover she never tires of courting. By the second half, however, “A Drop in the Bucket” has mutated into a kind of 12-step primer on how the gambling compulsion sinks its claws into the addict. After a streak of beginner’s luck, Bea grows desperate for a win. She plays away her nest egg, then her rent money, until at last she is evicted. A disapproving son takes her in, but at the cost of her new-found pride and independence.
While Act 1 celebrates these feisty old ladies for their risk-taking, Act 2 almost completely negates that message by unfolding a predictable moral disclaimer on the perils of gambling.
The comedy has its charming moments, for which much of the credit belongs to Patterson and Venard. Patterson’s white-haired, apple-cheeked Bea oozes grandmotherly appeal whether she’s forcing coffee and cookies on her visitors or fretting about how she’ll meet her rent payment.
Too much surrounding this 68-year-old character, though, appears stuck in a time warp. Her apartment’s decor seems to date from the 1940s, as do parts of the musical soundtrack. Few 80-year-old women would dress as frumpily as Bea does in the first act. And it would seem that her business-professor son, Barry (Stephen DiMenna), has missed the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s altogether and unaccountably expects a 1960s sitcom mother. Though “A Drop in the Bucket” is set in the present and deals with a contemporary topic, the production feels incongruously sentimental. More believable as a character is Venard’s Doris, whose loud wardrobe is accessorized with lots of gold lame. In portraying this seasoned gambler, Venard hits a fine balance between the brassy and the blase. An intelligent actress, Venard makes Doris seem just dumb enough that we can believe she doesn’t regret devoting her golden years to one-armed bandits.
Director William Partlan knows how to punch up a dragging script with bubbly gestures, quick fade-outs and musical flourishes. At times, though, he forces the gaiety, tarting up lame quips as if the play were in need of a laugh track. In fairness, he has a point.
Stolid-seeming Minnesota has in recent years become a mecca for legalized gambling; by now even Lake Wobegon must operate daily shuttles to the local casino. So it’s not surprising that the Cricket Theater should want to stage a play on this timely subject.
But Belling struggles with conflicting desires to be cute and socially responsible. Incredibly, he tacks on a comic coda to Bea’s story. Better that the author had dispensed with caution and pursued more daringly his initial paradox — that so tawdry a pastime as gambling can in fact be a life-saving tonic for a couple of lonely widows.