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Entertainment & Arts

Review: At Theatricum Botanicum, two fine actors remind us why ‘The Gin Game’ won a Pulitzer

A simple game of cards becomes a battlefield for two nursing home residents played by Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James in “The Gin Game” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum.
A simple game of cards becomes a battlefield for two nursing home residents played by Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James in “The Gin Game” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum.
(Kevin Hudnell)

Card tables shoved over, vicious slapping — who knew gin rummy could be a contact sport? Between senior citizens, no less? A superb revival of 1976’s “The Gin Game” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum explores the pain seething below the comic surface of D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander.

Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James reprise their roles in Christian Lebano’s staging, which originated last fall to acclaim at Sierra Madre Playhouse. Moving the production to the Theatricum’s scenic outdoor stage for weekend matinees proves particularly well-suited to the duel of wits unfolding on the patio of a seedy nursing home.

Things start off innocently enough when cynical loner Weller (Blumenfeld) strikes up a conversation with recent arrival Fonsia (James), a fellow refugee from Visitors Day festivities.

After some grousing about the home’s shoddy condition, Weller coaxes Fonsia into a round of gin, a game at which she professes herself a novice. Naturally, she ends up winning every hand.

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Despite its meet-cute setup and witty banter, “The Gin Game” is no lightweight rom-com when actors of this caliber tackle the roles. (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starred in the original Broadway run.)

Case in point: Weller’s mounting frustration at Fonsia’s winning streak. The buildup to his exploding tantrum could easily just rehash the exasperated bluster of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.” While Blumenfeld’s comic timing is impeccable, he also shows us how much more is at stake for Weller. Amid the joyless captivity of the nursing home, belief in his card-playing expertise is one of Weller’s few remaining pillars of self-respect, and he loses more of it with each defeat.

With equal nuance, James peels away the layers of prim-and-proper Fonsia’s scolding to reveal her terrified loneliness and the desperation behind her increasingly sharp-edged teasing. As she and Weller lash at each other’s psychic wounds, they shred the self-delusions that can no longer sustain them in the twilight of their lives.

It helps that Blumenfeld and James are a real-life couple. With even deeper rapport and darker purpose than in their memorable “Talley’s Folly” at the Theatricum in 2002, they provide us with an opportunity to appreciate two fine L.A. actors at the top of their game.

'The Gin Game'
Where: Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga
When: 1 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through Sept. 29
Tickets: $38
Info: (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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