In his Pulitzer-winning play, D.L. Coburn draws an unsentimental portrait of two residents of a retirement home whose loneliness draws them into a tempestuous pas de deux over the card table. During its initial late-’70s Broadway run, the two-hander showcased formidable thesps, including Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, E.G. Marshall and Maureen Stapleton. This National Actors Theater production of “The Gin Game,” which is in L.A. for a brief stand on its national tour, brings us another stellar pairing in Charles Durning and Julie Harris, who etch memorable characters from the spare but incisive text.
Fonsia (Harris) and Weller (Durning) are outsiders in more than one sense. Saddened and disgusted by their fellow residents’ obsession with illness and physical frailty, and too sharp-witted to succumb to the home’s organized “entertainment,” they seek escape from the numbing activities in the main building on visitor’s day (neither has any visitors).
Their refuge is an enclosed porch facing a garden (James Noone’s lovely set embodies an appropriate mix of comfort and disrepair), where we first find Weller, cheating at solitaire and gazing at a passing train, his face a heart-wrenching composition of aching regret. When new arrival Fonsia bursts into his solitude, he sees not merely a soul mate but a gin partner, and eagerly charms her into a game, whose rules he must explain.
The joke is that Fonsia has an endless steak of beginner’s luck, inspiring Weller’s invective-laden ire. This gag may appear thin and formulaic, but the playwright brings to it a subtle series of variations that provide increasingly clear glimpses into the characters’ hearts. The play does take more time than it should, however, in reaching its darker, more dramatically satisfying depths. But there’s a pleasing refusal to over-explain the subjects’ personalities and life stories, and here the actors’ full-blooded turns convincingly fill in the gaps.
Durning’s Weller is a man who once shone in the world of business, and whose bitterness over his current circumstances can’t hide a simple longing for company. When he grudgingly agrees to dance with Fonsia, we see the man’s former agility in matters human, expressed in the confident lightness with which he guides her around the floor. Fonsia, on the other hand, raised a proper Methodist, has held on to her hurts and disappointments without giving them full, honest expression — until her new card rival hits the right nerves. Harris creates a woman whose buttoned-up facade and girlish playfulness mask deep scars.
Over the course of three Sundays, their courting and feuding take them from childlike silliness to brutally soul-baring revelations. Weller’s approach shifts from cajoling to pleading to bullying, and he wields his cane with increasing menace, as the gin game takes on an urgency beyond its time-passing value. The informal tournament culminates in a truth-baring round in which much more is at stake than either player can comprehend.
Some of the actors’ movements in the early going could be smoother and less artificial, and the climactic moments of the final scene are more baffling than illuminating, but overall, Charles Nelson Reilly’s direction reflects a keen sensitivity to the play’s finer, unspoken points. Durning and Harris are delightful as the sparring duo. Their masterful work makes this “Gin Game” a sure bet.