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‘Gin Game’ Distills Wry Humor

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game” belongs in a small theater. It needs an intimacy that brings the viewer right next to the table at which Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey play out their unremarkable lives through the game of Hollywood gin, in the garden of Bentley Manor, an early-'30s old-folks home in Southern California.

The game echoes their lives, their lives echo the game, and the closer one is, the clearer is the playwright’s metaphor. And his intent.

Closeness is one of the advantages in the Ensemble Theatre production of Coburn’s play. Weller’s anger is in your face; his desperation over a life wasted, for which he accepts no responsibility, is on your lap. Fonsia’s prim self-righteousness is there too, as near as if you were sitting at the card table with them. So is her own anger as her facade crumbles under the heavy blows of Weller’s irascibility.

Director Herman Boodman takes advantage of the space to keep his actors of a size that is realistic while still allowing them room to expand when the script calls for it. He also knows that Weller and Fonsia’s bittersweet battle has more laughs than two Neil Simon plays put together, and that they all are built out of character.

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Tricia Jordan LaRue is very good as Fonsia, but one never gets past the fact that she is acting. Her slight Southern accent seems just a bit like a coat she’s put on, and there are moments when her actions play at elderly rather than being elderly. When LaRue forgets these trappings and gets into Fonsia’s soul, she is effective and touching.

James Dolan is much more solid with his intricate and beautifully shaded performance as Weller. Dolan measures the size and force of Weller’s vulgarity with care, and at the same time never lets the viewer free of sympathy for the man’s plight. He also knows how to build a laugh and how to surprise an audience while doing it.

The setting, designed by Boodman and Roosevelt Blankenship Jr., places the action where it should be without intruding on the attention the drama requires. The uncredited period costumes are just right, particularly one of Fonsia’s dresses, a leftover from the ‘20s but still her best dress.

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* “The Gin Game,” Ensemble Theatre, 844 E. Lincoln Ave., Suite E, Orange. Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 20. $10-$15. (714) 998-2199. Running time: 1 hours, 50 minutes.

James Dolan: Weller Martin

Tricia Jordan LaRue: Fonsia Dorsey

An Eastern Boys production of D.L. Coburn’s tragicomedy. Directed by Herman Boodman. Scenic design: Boodman, Roosevelt Blankenship Jr. Stage manager: Jim Mongell.

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