A Win-Lose Situation

Imagine a brainy spider battling cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn and you'll get some idea of the shenanigans on stage in the National Actors Theatre touring production of The Gin Game, starring Julie Harris and Charles Durning. The Tony Randall-produced revival, which just left the Royal Poinciana Playhouse to take up residence at Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse, courtesy of the MasterCard Broadway series, is the same inconsequential piffle that, in 1977, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The stars, however, are anything but lightweights.

Durning, of course, is the larger presence. And I do mean larger. These days the veteran actor, most recently seen as Dylan McDermott's father on ABC-TV's The Practice, has reached Tip O'Neill-like proportions. Durning's bulbous nose and bowl-full-of-jelly gut, however, merely announce his physical profile. His body of acting is also exceedingly rotund, embracing humor and pathos, inspiration and broad-stroke dexterity in this role alone. How fun, then, to see him paired with Harris, a minimalist who exerts less movement throughout her entire body than Durning uses to flick his wrists.

Together, in D.L. Coburn's melodrama about two old geezers abandoned by their families and dumped into a second-rate nursing home, the actors perform a demonic mating dance, illustrating the way their characters are caught in a self-destructive two-step. The card game of the title is the contest that Weller Martin (Durning) and Fonsia Dorsey (Harris) end up playing each week on the porch of their shabby residence. Fonsia is a new arrival. Weller, who sits outside dealing cards to no one in particular, tells her the "place takes some adjusting to." Both eschew the false cheeriness of the nursing home's social activities. Both are alone on visiting days.

Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin rummy, and before long she is winning every hand. It galls Weller that Fonsia has no strategy (or none that he can see). "I'm not an expert. I just play like an expert," she confides guilelessly as he grits his teeth. It incenses her that Weller is such a poor loser, letting out a string of profanities each time she announces "Gin!" Soon Fonsia reveals that she has a neglectful son living in Denver and a sister far away in Ottawa. He gruffly confesses, "Yeah, yeah. I have three children," adding that he lost touch with them long ago. She's quietly happy for the distraction from her loneliness. He ebulliently enunciates her name, "FON-si-a," like a railroad conductor announcing his arrival at a wonderful new town.

For a while Fonsia and Weller do provide an effortless refuge for one another and for us. The play unfolds with successive card games on the porch. (James Noone's set resembles the oversize veranda of a shabby Adirondacks camp building, in which dead leaves have begun to pile up amid sports equipment.) We learn about Fonsia's and Weller's pasts and how they came to be alone. We find out that they may not have represented themselves accurately at first. What we never quite learn, until we're well past caring, is what's at stake in this unlikely friendship aside from winning a gin rummy match. Is life a card game? Do metaphors get any shallower than this?

The Gin Game, after all, is a one-joke play. Weller is the expert gin player, but in playing Fonsia he has become the object of God's strange sense of humor. Indeed each card he discards is the very thing Fonsia needs to win. She always wins. As soon as she does win, he erupts as though her victory has upset the natural order of things. He barks, he turns beet red, he yells. He rails at the heavens.

Durning, in fact, yells like no one else. His Weller possesses an entire range of yells, a palette of howls and outbursts that have more subtlety than most actors ever dream of. For her part Harris plays Fonsia close to the chest, doling out information about herself as though Weller were going to steal her soul away. As always, Harris acts as though she were creating a piece of fine embroidery, its tiny stitches coming together to complete a larger picture. At age 71 the actress still seems like a young woman possessed of wisdom greater than her years.

The actors' versatility notwithstanding, by the end of the first act The Gin Game is exposed for what it is: a piece of dramatic tinfoil that even Harris and Durning have trouble turning into gold. By the time Fonsia complains about Weller's outbursts by saying, "I don't want to go through this every time I win," we realize that we don't either. Getting to know Fonsia and Weller has its highlights, but none of the play's dramatic discoveries can be called profound. Coburn's dialogue tends toward fluffy observations along the lines of the comment that Weller makes about the absurdity of offering dancing lessons in a nursing home, "a place where half the people can't get out of their chairs."

As it happens director Charles Nelson Reilly (yes, that Charles Nelson Reilly) has added a poignant scene in which Weller and Fonsia dance together. I can report that both actors can do much more than get out of their chairs. Reilly treats his actors like the thoroughbreds they are, allowing them ample liberties to bring characteristics and idiosyncrasies to these slightly drawn individuals. Still, the play is lovely rather than transcendent. Its one surprise is the instance in which Weller bursts into song: The voice that comes out of Durning turns out to be a heart-melting tenor rather than the baritone he would seem to possess.

The Gin Game may have won the Pulitzer Prize, yes, but that doesn't mean it's a play worth reviving. (For another example of the Pulitzer committee's questionable taste in drama, consider that in 1945 the award was given to Harvey, Mary Chase's affable comedy about a man with an imaginary rabbit, over Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, one of the four or five great American plays.)

The Gin Game's longevity has much to do with the original 1977 production, which was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in indelible performances. The current pairing of Durning and Harris (which ran on Broadway for three months beginning in April 1997, earning Harris a Tony nomination) only furthers the argument that The Gin Game is less a satisfying play than an excuse to get two virtuoso actors together on the same set.

If Durning and Harris seem to be milking the small moments for all they're worth, it's because the big moments, such as they are, are rather trite. Fonsia isn't as bad as Weller accuses her of being. Weller doesn't deserve the punishment the playwright doles out to him. Life is much more engaging than this particular card game, even as delightfully dealt here by Charles Durning. Given her voluminous, five-Tony Award theater career, from I Am a Camera (1952) to The Belle of Amherst (1977), and high-caliber Hollywood credits, from The Member of the Wedding (1952) to East of Eden (1955), Harris brings a nearly unparalleled legacy of acting with her on stage. Even in the slightest of roles, she sparkles.

The Gin Game.
Written by D.L. Coburn. Directed by Charles Nelson Reilly. Starring Julie Harris and Charles Durning. Through April 4. Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-763-2444.

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