Consider the list of great comedy-thrillers that manage whiplash wit while being genuinely gripping: “North by Northwest,” “Charade,” “House of Games”… Hang on, David Mamet’s chilly 1987 movie didn’t have a laugh in it. It does now. Richard Bean’s terrific new stage version pulls off the considerable trick of keeping things taut while adding humor to the elaborately twisty tale.
The basic plot remains the same. Carefully composed Nancy Carroll plays psychoanalyst Dr. Margaret Ford, who, in addition to just having published a bestseller on compulsive behavior, has a riskily off-the-wall client, Billy (nicely unhinged Al Weaver), who, in the opening scene, pulls a gun on her. He has lost more than he can pay back in a poker game and, wanting to help him in a more than usually tangible way, she goes to visit the rundown poker parlor.
Once there, she grows intrigued, not least by ringleader Mike (beautifully relaxed, easeful Michael Landes) and it’s not long before she’s juggling her sense of responsibility with serious attraction to both Mike and the tempting offer he makes. Does she want to observe their activities so that she can write a second bestseller? Her decision has giant and ever more engrossing consequences.
Unlike most screen-to-stage retreads, “House of Games” gains from being performed live. “We ain’t acting now,” says con artist Bobby (dim-as-a-doorknob John Marquez). But the irony, of course, is that he (and everyone else on stage) is doing precisely that.
The audience remains deliciously aware that the actors are playing poker players — which means that at least part of the time they’re bluffing, i.e., acting. And without giving away the all-important plot, which makes the spiraling cons ever more fascinatingly layered, with the audience constantly in the pleasurable position of thinking themselves one step ahead of the game.
Bean not only toys with that degree of knowingness; he also screws the action down into two locations and, crucially, removes the misogyny that, to many people’s eyes, stalks the original movie, in which Margaret was the only female character with a significant role. He tweaks the controversial ending and adds another significant woman into the mix.
Not that Mike is happy about it. He has asked one of the players to bring in an extra guy. And sure enough, in comes black businessman P.J. (Peter De Jersey), but there’s also banker Carla (tough-talking Amanda Drew). Or, as Mike yells, “Sarah Palin and Barack fucking Obama!”
Huge and heavy Trevor Cooper clearly is having a ball with lines like “Why do I always have to play the obnoxious fat guy?” Indeed, all the actors seize Bean’s mimicking of Mamet’s laconic dialogue with relish.
As the professional outsider, Nancy Carroll remains ideally still and controlled, but as her involvement with Mike intensifies, Carroll introduces a sunnier aspect to the character that warms up the proceedings to the text’s enormous advantage.
The strength of Lindsay Posner’s unusually taut production is attributable not just to the balance of the uniformly strong cast but also to the solidity and utter plausibility of Peter McKintosh’s split-level set. He pitches Margaret’s anodyne, white-walled office up high above the stage. Isolated by Paul Pyant’s lighting, it’s in fierce contrast to the dingy dive far below, reached by a flight of clattery stairs. The effect is as if the den has been carved out the theater’s back wall.
With a cast of eight, the play looks certain to have the future it deserves. Far from being a faded copy of a movie, it’s a deliciously theatrical reinvention. Tense though the original was, there’s a surprising amount of pleasure to be had in finding yourself literally in on the act.