In 1976, playwright D.L. Coburn created the Pulitzer-winning comedy, The Gin Game, when he imagined two elderly people at an old folks’ home bickering over a game of cards. If the story skimps on plot (it does), and the stakes aren’t exactly high (they’re not), the producers of this revival have drummed up two very good reasons for viewers to make the trek to the John Golden Theater: James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson.
The play does conjure many laughs, especially when Weller (Jones) reacts incredulously to Fonsia (Tyson) winning game after game, seemingly without effort. Still, an undertow of sadness prevails, as these two lonely protagonists feel forgotten by their families and society at large. Weller may boil over at his deck full of deadwood, but the audience knows this is misplaced anger, a consequence of his desolate living conditions. And if Fonsia revels in the attention of her crotchety companion, this stems less from a romantic spark and more from the fact that someone is actually paying attention to her—even when, half the time, conversation ensues via tantrums.
Overall, it’s enjoyable to watch these two banter and quarrel—with Jones’s booming basso and Tyson’s charm still in prime form. Of the two, Jones is the stronger, by sheer voice and heft, but also because he never tries to play for effect (though a touch more spontaneity wouldn’t hurt). Jones’s Weller may distribute diamonds and clubs with a martinet’s efficiency, but the production’s trump card is the funny/troubling way the actor hints at the apoplexy always building under the old man’s surface.
Meanwhile, as she did in The Trip to Bountiful two years ago, Tyson can sometimes pull faces and go for cuteness, though she certainly retains the energy and presence of an actress decades younger than her reported 91 (in part why her Tony Award for that performance was, despite the occasional mugging, unarguably deserved). What Jones and Tyson can’t do is make their characters, as written, equally fault-ridden—even though that seems to be author Coburn’s message in the play’s final third. Weller may speechify about Fonsia being cold, puritanical and hard to love, but we never actually see that. He’s a control-freak jerk; she’s a veritable saint.
Perhaps noting this imbalance, director Leonard Foglia sticks mainly to comedy rather than mining the undercurrent of this abusive relationship. You’ll also be glad to hear no one has a stroke, gets cancer, loses their marbles or drops dead. From beginning to end, these oldsters play cards, and Tyson and Jones score pretty high with the hands they’re dealt.