Poker Gets Dramatic

In the evil galaxy of schadenfreude where theater resides, nothing's better than a darkly funny play about hopeless wankers full of big talk and even bigger dreams that you know will never be realized because of their cycles of obsession and addiction, whether it's drugs, sex, or, in the case of Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice, the pissing away of a last quid in some poker game held in the dank basement of a London restaurant.

This is exactly what the happy evil theatergoer gets in Dealer's Choice, which opened convincingly last week at Mosaic Theatre: a gambling scrum. In the play's restaurant, owned by patriarchal Stephen (Ken Clement), cook Sweeney (Gregg Weiner) and waiters Frankie (Christian Rockwell) and Mugsy (Todd Durkin) barely make it through each day with the methadone of coin-flipping bets as they salivate in expectation of the big fix, Sunday's ritual poker game. And Stephen's repeatedly prodigal son Carl (Aran Graham), with his own gambling addiction, on this particular Sunday night has shown up followed by his moneylender, Ash (Pete Rogan), looking for a pound of flesh or at least an entry into the game to win big so he can then go pay off his own lenders.

It's no surprise that these men talk larger than they are. Mugsy misguidedly yearns to open his own restaurant in — the constant butt of jokes — a set of public toilets he can get cheap in a seedy part of town. That is, if he can win the 1,000 pounds to buy them. Frankie intends to head to the big poker tables of Las Vegas, and Sweeney just wants to make it to the next day with enough money to spend on his sweet young daughter. They're all a few grand short of success, and this evening, just like every Sunday evening of dreams, will surely make the difference, right?

Mosaic Theatre's restaurant is instantly established as you walk into the theater to find tables forming a perimeter between the stage and the audience's rows of seats that rise behind them. Theatergoing "customers" are invited to sit together at the tables in a nice touch akin to the design of Michael Frayn's physics play Copenhagen, with its use of compliant audience members sitting on stage as electrons inside the atom of the play. Scenic designer Sean McClelland and crew must have had fun not just organizing the arrangement but also wondering who might plop down at the tables, expecting, perhaps especially at matinees, a surprise early-bird dinner.

The first act of Dealer's Choice is meant to be foreplay, setting up conflicts to be settled, or not, in the second act's basement card game. Director Paul Tei in this first act brings out the best of his actors, especially through a well-choreographed screaming match among the ensemble. Stephen and his snot-nosed son Carl scream about Carl's gambling problem. Sweeney, Frankie, and Mugsy scream at one another just for the joy of screaming. It's a fine operatic moment.

The play's central defining moments also come in the first half. "If you don't play, I don't get to see you," Stephen sadly tells Carl about the weekly game, their entire father-son relationship defined in that one remark. And when Sweeney begs his mate Frankie to stash away 50 pounds as reserve money so he'll have something to treat his daughter the next day, you just know that reserve is going to be milked during the game.

This poker game could be anytime (a character's cell flip-phone places it now), but Marber's award-winning play was first produced in London in 1995, his first before he became much better-known for the play, then film, Closer. In the decade since Dealer's Choice's first production about poker and manhood, though, as the era of the New Lad has become enfranchised, perhaps some of the truly masculine bite of poker has also been excised. That bite was probably more special in the mid-'90s than now, as every wanking Hollywood celebrity since then has had his or her place around a Bravo television green felt table. Macauley Culkin facing down Ricki Lake in Texas Hold 'Em? Ugh.

There are solid if mixed performances all around in director Tei's camp. As disciplined dad, Clement is kind of a half-baked Lear-on-the-heath kind of guy, which mostly works, and Graham does what he can with what turns out to be an underdeveloped role as the ne'er-do-well son. Rogan, as Ash, is either flat or perhaps an excellent parody of comedian Ricky Jay in his roles in The Spanish Prisoner or Deadwood. Let's go with the Ricky Jay.

The other three provide greater power. Durkin, a master of slumped shoulders and comic mayhem, has the power to steal whatever show he's in, and the richest (though understated) dynamic is between Weiner's Sweeney and Rockwell's Frankie. Weiner and Rockwell deliver the show's most heartfelt performances, as they explore the complicated relationship of friends who are also gambling enablers.

Overall, Dealer's Choice could just as well end right before intermission. "Am I a mug?" Mugsy sobbingly asks right before the break, as he and the others head down the stairs into the basement gambling crack den, the place where the first act's dreams will be squashed. It's clear, even as the audience goes out for a smoke, what will happen next. They're all mugs in a food chain of mugs, one playing off the other.

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Dave Amber