October 17, 2015

"The Gin Game" Plays a Winning Hand

As they age, some actors retreat from the stage, citing memory loss, diminished stamina or some other disabling factor. Luckily, neither Cicely Tyson, who will be 91 in December, nor James Earl Jones, who'll turn 85 one month later, has gotten that memo. Because that means theater lovers now have the chance to see these two majestic old lions perform together in the marvelous revival of The Gin Game that opened at the Golden Theatre this week.

D.L.Coburn's two-hander about two lonely people in a nursing home who forge a friendship during a series of card games first played on Broadway in 1977 when I was far too young to think about old age and didn't give The Gin Game a second thought, even though it then starred the husband-and-wife team of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, ran 583 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize.

And even now when the play's themes are hitting much closer to home, I had worried that The Gin Game might be one of those shows that get a kick out of making old people look foolish: unable to handle anything more technologically complicated than a can opener, embarrassingly sex crazed or delusionally daft. But it isn't.

Instead, Coburn has created two full-bodied characters. Weller was a businessman, who lost contact with his kids after a divorce from their mother and lost control of his company after falling out with some partners. Fonsia was an even earlier divorcée who raised her only son alone by working as an apartment house manager but she hasn't seen him in years.

Both find themselves in a second-rate nursing home, aware of their failings, physical and otherwise, unvisited by anyone and yet determined to push on with all the dignity they can muster.

The Gin Game is refreshingly honest about the challenges of aging, from minor annoyances like the patronizing way people treat the elderly to major concerns like the prospect of senility. And yet, it's also genuinely funny. People seated all around me and my friend Ann were having a great time.

The play, which runs for a full two hours, requires its actors to be of a certain age but it also requires them to possess the performing chops of much younger players. Jones and Tyson fit the bill. And the fact that the show fits them equally well is quiet testament to the fact that Shakespeare isn't the only playwright whose work can adapt easily to race-diverse casting.

The stars' professional and personal relationship dates back to the legendary 1961 production of Jean Genet's The Blacks, which also starred Roscoe Lee Browne, Louis Gossett and Maya Angelou. And the old friends, under the guidance of Leonard Foglia's easy direction, bring out the best in one another (click here to read an interview with them done by an old friend of mine).

I've sometimes found Tyson, best known for playing noble and long-suffering women like the real-life abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the fictional former slave Miss Jane Pittman, to be mannered. But here, as in her Tony-winning performance in The Trip to Bountiful two seasons ago, Tyson relaxes into her character, allowing Fonsia to be flirty one moment, flinty the next. She makes it equally easy to see why Weller might be drawn to Fonsia and why Fonsia's son might want to keep his distance from her.

Jones' familiar booming basso voice (familiar to fans of "Star Wars" and CNN alike) sometimes gets in the way of his acting and it almost does in the opening scenes of this play. But once he and Tyson settled into the routine of their card games, he shifts into a more nuanced performance that reveals the years of disappointment and defeat underneath Weller's prickliness.

It is sometimes difficult to tell whether Jones really needs the cane he wields or if the little old lady shuffle Tyson uses to get around the stage is a character trait or a physical necessity. And I'm pretty sure a couple of lines were bungled the night I saw the show. But no matter, these two old masters make old age look truly golden.

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