Under playwright Patrick Marber’s direction, his “Dealer’s Choice” was staged at the Royal National Theater, transferred to the West End, won awards and was optioned for New York by producer Elizabeth McCann. But for the play’s first full U.S. production (there was a previous staging for Atlanta’s Olympic Games), the playwright has opted for American director David Esbjornson, a decision that looks to have been a mistake: Esbjornson, artistic director of New York’s Classic Stage Company, and “Dealer’s Choice” seem incompatible.
The all-male play takes place at a trendy London restaurant on a quiet Sunday night/Monday morning, the action played out around a poker table. Heterosexual male relationships, as well as the nature of gamblers and gambling, are explored. Most of the action takes place between men who’ve known, worked and lived with one another for many years, so conversations, arguments and ribbings are everyday affairs. Several climactic scenes, though, are anything but low-key , including one row delivered, quite rightly, at a roaring shout.
But in direct contradiction to what the play seems to need, most of the rest of the dialogue is equally bellowing. By far the noisiest of the cast is Reg Rogers as Mugsy, a “bloody idiot,” “cretin” and blatant supplier of comic relief who chatters endlessly about opening a new restaurant in a former public toilet on London’s Mile End Road. The playwright himself has acknowledged that the role should not be allowed to unbalance the play; apparently, Esbjornson and Rogers took no heed of Marber’s warning, taking Mugsy way over the roaring top.
The play itself is full of brisk, punchy writing and is often wildly funny (sometimes to the detriment of Marber’s dark and bleak elements). But it’s also psychologically questionable and would certainly be improved by cutting, tightening, swifter pacing and at least some subtlety.
Within the heterosexual relationships are hints of homosexuality. And naturally class comes into the play. Stephen and son Carl are middle class, the others working class. The cast (two of whom, Coster and Crowley, are British actors making their U.S. debuts) get these distinctions reasonably right except for Spackman’s Ash, who, well-dressed in a tailored suit, seems more middle than working class. The various relationships aren’t well enough delineated, and it’s hard to accept the fact that restaurant owner Stephen is supporting his son’s gambling habits because he only gets to see him at the weekly poker games. (The restaurant owner’s generosity with wine is no more believable.)
Hugh Landwehr’s bare-bones set for the first act is too stripped down to evoke a trendy London restaurant, and the use of a small revolve in act two seems dramatically pointless. But it’s the heavy-handed direction and resulting noisy, overcooked acting that are the fatal flaws here. With them, “Dealer’s Choice” doesn’t seem to be of award-winning caliber.