The Gamester

A specialist in applying new spit and polish to Moliere classics, Freyda Thomas turns to his comparatively obscure junior contemporary Jean-Francois Regnard in "The Gamester," based on the latter's 1696 "Le Joueur."

A specialist in applying new spit and polish to Moliere classics, Freyda Thomas turns to his comparatively obscure junior contemporary Jean-Francois Regnard in “The Gamester,” based on the latter’s 1696 “Le Joueur.” Less an adaptation than a new commedia inspired by the original work’s basic plot outline, this sparkling farce about a compulsive gambler has no trouble bridging a 310-year gap in audience tastes. And Ron Lagomarsino’s American Conservatory Theater staging reps one of that entity’s more purely enjoyable productions in some time.

Titular figure is Valere (Lorenzo Pisoni), a handsome but callow young aristo who has squandered a small fortune and alienated his proper father Thomas (Steve Irish) by wallowing in Parisian vices. Well, actually, just one vice: He’s a hapless slave to Lady Luck.

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Said muse seldom rewards his attentions, however, to the dismay of long-suffering servant Hector (Gregory Wallace) as well as disapproving true love Angelique (Margot White). She threatens to marry another if he doesn’t reform, while dad threatens disinheritance. Creditors threaten Valere with jail if his ample debts aren’t repaid. Natch, he can’t help thinking one more gaming bout might turn all this around, so long as father, fiancee and all others are kept oblivious of his relapse.

Several richly caricatured characters have reasons for hoping the young rake fails: Angelique’s black-widow older sister Mme. Argante (Rene Augesen) wants him for herself. The ingenue’s guardian Mme. Preferee (Stacy Ross) still stings from our roue’s past rejection. Unflappably rich ‘n’ randy matron Mme. Securite (Joan Mankin) does not want to lose the boytoy she’s enjoyed whenever his circumstances grew desperate enough to make gigolo employment necessary.

Two male buffoons also plot against him — the decrepit Dorante (Ron Campbell), who covets Angelique, and florid Marquis de Fauxpas (Anthony Fusco), reduced to a stammering ruin whenever he tries to approach his frosty love-object Mme. Argante.

All these subsidary roles (though Thomas’ text is pretty much an ensemble piece) are deliciously played, heightening the payoff as casino-set Act Two finds them pairing off in unexpected romantic liaisons. This happens as all spy on disguised Valere’s attempt to win back his fortune at the tables — an effort doomed not just by bad luck, but by the presence of grim onlooker Angelique, herself in crossdress guise.

A happy ending is somehow devised (by Thomas — like many elements here, it bears scant resemblance to Regnard’s original), albeit one that doesn’t let the irresponsible hero off the hook one whit. Thomas has a gift for rhyme and meter, adhering to antique forms via language just contemporary enough to seem wittily impudent rather than cheap-laugh crass.

Lagomarsino’s cast — more rooted in Bay Area talent than is usual for ACT, making you wonder again why they so often go farther afield — is almost uniformly delightful. Even if their opening night wasn’t necessarily a perfect one: There were timing bald-patches, while physical comedy and sound design elements (including several arch retro lounge-type tracks) weren’t as yet ideally incorporated into the whole. This is a production sure to go from very good to better as run continues.

Kate Edmunds’ scenery at times wavers awkwardly between witty and tacky, a line more ably straddled by Beaver Bauer’s over-the-top costumes, which evoke a 17th century fashionista France that Liberace might well have approved of.

The Gamester

Geary Theater; 1035 seats; $68 top

  • Production: An American Conservatory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Freyda Thomas, based on "Le Joueur" by Jean-Francois Regnard. Directed by Ron Lagomarsino.
  • Crew: Sets, Kate Edmunds; costumes, Beaver Bauer; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Garth Hemphill; composer, Peter Maleitzke; production stage manager, Kimberly Mark Webb. Opened, reviewed at Geary Theatre, Jan. 12, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
  • Cast: Valere - Lorenzo Pisoni Angelique - Margot White Hector - Gregory Wallace Thomas - Steve Irish Mme. Securite - Joan Mankin Mme. Preferee - Stacy Ross Mme. Argante - Rene Augesen Dorante - Ron Campbell Marquis de Fauxpas - Anthony Fusco Betty - Lianne Marie Dobbs Croupier - Andy Murray Ensemble: Nancy Carlin, Gregory Crane.
  • Music By: