D.L. Coburn's 'The Gin Game,' which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, has a highly unusual structure for a play with serious intentions its spine is a running gag.
The play has two characters lonely, elderly people in a state-run nursing home. Both Fonsia Dorsey (Julie Harris) and Weller Martin (Charles Durning) have had unhappy marriages and children who desire no relationship with them. The details of their dispiriting lives come out in little dribbles over a card table, where they amuse each other playing gin.
What makes it a gag is that Fonsia always wins.
In the hands of a lesser actress, the joke could easily wear thin. But Harris understands the inner workings of a veteran cardplayer, the ability to channel one's emotions into the determined rearrangement of cards. She invests every hand with such intensity that every time she wins you feel a little excitement. More important, you laugh.
You might imagine that game after game would grow monotonous and irritating. With such skillful performers as Harris and the easily perturbable Durning, however, it's delicious.
By the end of the play, moreover, you see that the rituals of cardplaying are like those of a marriage. The repeated confrontations result in the same tensions that left them both so utterly alone.
When the play was first done, 20 years ago, with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, directed by Mike Nichols, it was more austere than it is here.
In the final scene, the action indeed grows darker the friendly adversarial tone, the jaunty banter of cardplayers has become an unreasoning, uncontrollable antagonism. Here, because the tone has been so light, the harshness is strange and unexpected.
Charles Nelson Reilly has directed the revival. With its lighter tone, the play is wonderfully engaging, even if its final moments seem unaccountable. Coburn himself has softened the tone of the play adding a scene in which Harris and Durning dance.
There is something delightful about the heavyset Durning, for most of the play hobbling around on a cane and brooding on his adversary's endless luck, suddenly growing nimble. It is a moment of grace in an otherwise cheerless life. Durning has never been more winning.
As for Harris, she makes Fonsia, who could easily be astringent, as poignant as she is funny.
James Noone's set, a huge glassed-in porch of what was once a mansion and is now a bleached out mess, is a perfect backdrop for the admittedly limited action. Noel Taylor's costumes relieve the drabness wittily, and Kirk Bookman's lighting underscores the bleakness of the situation. Watching Harris and Durning is enormously enjoyable.
You can step into a certain restaurant and instantly know you are in good hands. The lighting, the flowers, the table: everything just feels right. No sooner do you sit than a waiter, solicitous but not intrusive, arrives with a basket of crusty bread and a glass of rare Burgundy. You scan the menu. Among the specials: your favorite dish.
Contentment. How often do performances in a theater approach this level of earthly delight? Not often enough, for sure. And yet it happens, and is happening, at this very moment at the Lyceum Theater, where a pair of silver-haired veterans of the stage are having at each other with an abandon enabled by a lifetime of actors' calluses and a radiant love of craft.
Your gratitude at evening's end may be such that you're tempted, in fact, to leave a tip.
The actors are Julie Harris and Charles Durning, and the play is ''The Gin Game,'' D. L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning battle of wills, in the form of a card game between a man and a woman condemned to a seedy nursing home and to an old age of grievous self-delusion. The revival, by Tony Randall's National Actors Theater, may at long last supply the worthy raison d'etre that has eluded the company: giving superb older actors wide berth on a big stage, and audiences a reminder of what Broadway was like when it was still the center of the acting universe.
Let's be clear about one thing, however: ''The Gin Game,'' which made its debut on Broadway in October 1977 (with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn), has not aged as gracefully as its current stars. It's a gimmicky piece that works well only when the actors are engaged in psychological warfare over a deck of cards.
Whenever they rise, to gaze at the sky or reveal a personal detail, the play loses momentum and cohesion. The audience becomes addicted solely to the gamesmanship; at times you find yourself closing your eyes and willing the actors back to the card table for another scrumptious round of baiting and backbiting. It is for that reason that the roles of Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey must be played by consummate craftsmen who know how to keep things alive and kicking. And that is why Ms. Harris and Mr. Durning make such a sublime and enthralling entrance. Watching these pros is like sitting at center court for a match between John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Their contest is one of pure finesse.
''The Gin Game,'' which opened last night, is virtually plotless. Two strangers are alone on the cluttered porch of a ramshackle nursing home, conceived by the designer James Noone as a kind of diorama of institutional decline and neglect. (The bug that buzzes the bare light bulb is a great touch.) At first it's unclear why these two youngish old folks, both in their early 70's and entirely sound of mind -- 71 just doesn't seem so advanced an age anymore -- end up trapped in such a dump.
Slowly, however, as Weller and Fonsia play their hands and reveal to each other their aches and pains and, more significantly, the depths of their emotional impoverishment, their predicaments become more comprehensible. It isn't only children, it seems, who run away from broken homes, and an old-age home can be as much a warehouse for the sick at heart as for the sickly.
They are drawn to each other by chance and rummy, each harboring a desperate need to trample and gloat and excuse away loss. Weller, a crank and a supposed card shark, makes the first move, and it's a pleasure to watch Mr. Durning contain his glee as he maneuvers the whimpering Ms. Harris into a chair at his innocuous-looking folding table.
In the original Mr. Cronyn and Ms. Tandy brought a patrician glamour to Weller and Fonsia, despite the characters' diminished circumstances. Twenty years on, the memory remains vivid of Mr. Cronyn's tapping his foot as he dealt each card (''One, one, two, two, three, three . . .'') and Ms. Tandy's sending a jolt through the theater when, goaded by Mr. Cronyn, she let a vulgarity escape her lips.
The new stars of ''The Gin Game'' wisely choose another path. They look and sound more ordinary, which makes Weller and Fonsia seem more like relatives from the Thanksgiving table of your childhood, the sort you might lose touch with after a family falling-out.
Mr. Durning is a big man with quick moves and the eyes of a shabby lawyer; you wouldn't take yours off his for a second. His Weller is an average Joe, a cousin, perhaps, to Willy Loman, who doesn't quite understand how the world turns but believes that he has been cheated out of the opportunity to be one of its big spinners.
Hungry for triumph of any kind, Weller foolishly takes his new adversary at face value, a character flaw Mr. Durning exploits for all its comic potential. When Ms. Harris's fragile Fonsia hands him a wallet-sized picture of her grandson, Mr. Durning hilariously tosses it back without even a glance.
Ms. Harris is the perfect instrument of Mr. Durning's exquisite torture at gin. She's that cute lady next door, the one with the maternal gaze and the tray of cookies and the cleaver up her sleeve. Fonsia has unexpected steel, which makes her a great character for Ms. Harris, who thankfully gets to play something other than bruised heroism. Her voice, at 71, is still singular and supple; you can hear in it traces of Emily Dickinson (her performance as the poet in William Luce's ''Belle of Amherst'' won her a fifth Tony Award in 1977), and even of Abra, the role she famously played opposite James Dean in ''East of Eden.''
The director, Charles Nelson Reilly, has the savvy of an efficient trainer: he lets his thoroughbreds run, but never allows their exercise to become undisciplined. With Fonsia winning hand after hand, shouting ''Gin!'' until it becomes a declaration not of her victory but of her opponent's humiliation, Ms. Harris never betrays the sense that the outcome is the result of anything but beginner's luck.
''Now, Weller,'' she says, peering over her cards to prepare Mr. Durning for his umpteenth defeat. ''Don't get mad at me.''
The laughter that follows bonds the audience ever more tightly to two performers completely in sync. You know exactly what level of dread she is feeling, first because Ms. Harris is one of those actresses incapable of insincerity onstage, and second because Mr. Durning is sitting across from her in the early stages of a slow burn that in moments will ignite in a clownish rage. It's serve and volley of the highest order.
At the curtain call, Mr. Durning takes Ms. Harris in his arms, and the stage becomes their dance floor. Once around the set they trot. It's a little like watching your parents take the spotlight at their anniversary party. For just a moment you, and they, are young again.
D.L. Coburn's "The Gin Game" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978, and today makes a pretty good argument for the Pulitzer board's decision this year to forgo a prize altogether rather than honor a work that is at best merely decent. The Broadway revival by the National Actors Theater is a shaky production of a play that was formulaic even before spawning numerous imitations.
Actors Julie Harris and Charles Durning have built up decades of goodwill, which goes a long way in explaining their likability despite tentative performances here. At the reviewed performance, both actors seemed too often off the mark, stumbling over dialogue or forgetting lines altogether. They'll likely settle into the roles sooner rather than later.
"The Gin Game" is essentially a one-concept play, but it's a concept that works fairly efficiently (so much so that it's still being used: See "Dealer's Choice" Off Broadway). Brought together by circumstance, disparate characters gradually reveal their true selves, with tragic results. What makes Coburn's play smarter than most is the way it trades on sentimentality early on only to turn harsh later.
Harris and Durning play Fonsia and Weller, two lonely newcomers to a shabby old-age home who strike up a friendship through gin rummy. She's the seemingly sweet-tempered novice, he's the self-styled expert, so her winning streak (which stretches over the entire play) sends him into increasingly volatile displays of temper.
The comedy of the first act comes largely from the clash between Fonsia's innocent nature and Weller's irascibility, while the poignancy derives from their disappointment at being abandoned by family and friends. But Coburn gradually reveals (as does director Charles Nelson Reilly) that Fonsia might not be the kindly old lady she seems, and both characters are more responsible for their loneliness than either cares to admit. "Gin Game" plays out its brittle hand to the bitter end.
Harris effectively uses her amiable persona to gain audience sympathy before revealing the character's nastier side, while the heavy-set Durning's red-faced tirades can seem uncomfortably realistic as a buildup to a coronary breakdown. Still, neither the actors nor the director have found an entirely credible way to make the old man's vicious, truth-telling confrontation with the woman seem like anything more than a playwright's string-pulling.
Played out on the enclosed front porch of the nursing home (confusingly rendered in James Noone's oversized set), this "Gin Game" hits its high points despite a somewhat lurching, stop-and-start pace. The production does find its laughs (including an inside one: Harris originally planned to tour the play with Carroll O'Connor; as Durning takes the stage, an "All in the Family" rerun can be heard coming from the nursing home). Still, this revival does little to justify the "The Gin Game's" big win nearly 20 years ago.