It’s true what they say about bona fide stars like Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones — they could indeed hold us spellbound simply by reading the New York telephone book. Not that “The Gin Game” is as insubstantial as the contents of the phone book. But despite having won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for scribe D.L. Coburn, this two-hander really is a slip of a thing, elevated to dramatic art by captivating Broadway performances from two of the most enchanting actors you’d ever hope to see on the same stage.
The lighting (by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer) is warm and kind, and the sound design (David Van Tieghem) is gentle on the ear, but the setting (Riccardo Hernandez) is a more reliable indicator of the people we’re about to meet on the back porch of the shabby house that constitutes the setting of “The Gin Game.”
We may recognize the robust and ever-genial Jones and the uncannily beautiful Tyson as Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, two of the residents of the unnamed old folks’ home beyond the dirty windows. But the set defines them more candidly — and unkindly — as two old, broken, and unwanted castoffs, of no more value than the mismatched tables, chairs and other detritus stacked up on the porch.
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While it’s heartening to note that the divine Tyson pays them no mind, poor Fonsia is actually forced to sit beside two huge garbage pails that are bigger than she is. But the real name of this game is “Let’s Pretend,” and Fonsia and Weller are doing a brilliant job of pretending that they are still alive and that they still matter — if not to society, then to each other.
The friendship between these two made-for-each-other strangers comes about when Weller finds a discarded card table among the other junk on the porch and talks Fonsia into letting him tutor her in the fine if forgotten art of playing gin rummy. Like the principals in any other romantic comedy, the stars handle this relationship with delicacy, restraint, and great wit — until the supposedly untutored Fonsia starts winning big-time.
Both stars play to their strengths in Leonard Foglia’s beautifully paced production. Jones makes wonderful use of Weller’s superior size and strength to bully and bluster his way through every contested hand, while Tyson’s priceless skills in the gentle art of passive aggression make the oh-so-delicate Fonsia a fierce and formidable opponent. They really are a match made in theater heaven.
Overly fond memories of the original production with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy left the impression that the second act brought significant character insights and much more detail about the circumstances that brought these intelligent and high-functioning adults to this depressing place. But wishing doesn’t make it so, and the modest truths and revelations that Coburn dishes out are mighty thin gruel. Audiences are unlikely to complain, however, so long as these two endearing stars show up nightly and proceed to twinkle their hearts out.