As slim plays go, “The Gin Game” has to be one of the slimmest.
Two people meet in a home for the aged, try to find rapport, deal a few volatile hands of gin, get uncomfortably inside each other’s heads, and then call it a day. That’s about it. Credit much of the spareness to the state of American theater during the mid- to late-'70s: high production costs generated plenty of plays that required only a few characters and minimal sets. The goal was often intimacy--with a small price tag.
“The Gin Game,” first produced in 1977, was one of the period’s major successes. Although sometimes criticized for its abbreviated, even shallow quality, D.L. Coburn’s drama won a Pulitzer Prize and found extended life in a touring show featuring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.
While hardly a great work, “The Gin Game” does gain strength through its unsentimental representation of the encompassing boredom and frustration that can come from getting old, from no longer being useful. At the Huntington Beach Playhouse, director Scott Zuckman knows what its assets are and makes the most of them, offering a lean, effective production of this very lean vehicle.
The performances of Joshua Kaye as the cranky, defensive, possibly imbalanced Weller, and Joyce Eriksen, as the sweet, proud, rather stable Fonzia, are right in line with Zuckman’s approach. Both are able to maintain tight, unindulgent acting throughout.
Eriksen stands out in the role that, of the two, requires more restraint. Fonzia stumbles into Weller’s life when she finds him agonizing over solitaire in the home’s seedy recreation room. She’s a lady, friendly but reserved, and only through the rising heat of successive gin games does she reveal how she came to this abandoned place. Eriksen has to build the character with thoughtful layering, and she accomplishes it gracefully.
Kaye gets the tougher role. Weller has lived at the home longer than Fonzia, and his self-conscious loneliness has tilted him, and not for the better. There’s a tempest of emotion in this man who wants companionship but is too angry to accept it easily. Weller considers himself a gin expert, and the game provides him his only triumph in a defeating environment. When Fonzia wins repeatedly, he can’t accept the humiliation. In making Weller work, Kaye is able to exhibit both rage at his situation and a yearning to connect with Fonzia. His emotions are charged but aren’t out of control, even in the explosive final scene.
‘THE GIN GAME’
A Huntington Beach Playhouse production of D.L. Coburn’s play. Directed by Scott Zuckman. With Joyce Eriksen and Weller Martin. Set by Martin Eckmann. Lighting by R. Glenn Brown Jr. Make-up by Suzette Coger. Plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Nov. 19 at the Gisler Little Theatre, 21141 Strathmoor Lane, Huntington Beach. Tickets: $5-$7. (714) 832-1405.