REVIEW: "The Gin Game"—Laguna Playhouse

"Games are funny things. When armies go to war, they call it a game. When couples play games, it can all too easily become war."


That, in a nutshell, is the story of “The Gin Game,” the 45-year-old classic which is being presented for three days only in a sensitively acted and gracefully staged livestream reading production from Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.


D.L. Coburn's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, has been a mainstay showcase for actors since its Broadway premiere in 1976 with real-life married actors, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Subsequent Broadway productions starred Julie Harris and Charles Durning, then James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson and most recently Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore in a TV movie.


The game involved here is the eponymous gin game, which is the lever that playwright Coburn and director Jenny Sullivan uses to pry open the passions, frustrations and sorrows of the only two characters, TV and theatre veterans Joe Spano (“NCIS,” “Hill Street Blues”), playing Weller Martin, and JoBeth Williams (“Poltergeist,” “The Big Chill”) as Fonsia Dorsey. Both fit the two roles like an old, comfortable pair of shoes.


They are residents of a retirement home who become conversational friends and then card-playing opponents. Both feel isolated from their families as well as from the other residents of the home. Mr. Spano and Ms. Williams’ characters turn to each other to ease the pains of loneliness until they discover too much about each other, and themselves. That’s when conversations become dissected, attitudes are colored by messy emotional outbursts, preconceived notions tear down the friendship, and life-long chauvinism and jealousies surface to disintegrate trust.


The dark undertone of this sad comedy makes “The Gin Game” a potent piece of work, and these two old pros tear into their parts without fear or compromise, finding both humor and bitterness. The script is sometimes emotionally riveting, sometimes uproariously funny, and on rare occasions perspective-alteringly instructive.


Director Sullivan has splendidly guided her two-member cast, both bringing their own brand of infectious spirit to their performances. As their characters continue to play, they talk about their failed marriages, their children, and Weller's business. When Fonsia wins more games, Weller starts to curse loudly, and Fonsia declares that in her Methodist upbringing, her father never uttered a foul word. As Weller's inability to win a single hand becomes increasingly frustrating, the “friendly match” takes on a deeper significance as he begins to view the game as a signifier of his waning virility. D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “The Gin Game,” is available as a video on demand, with viewing beginning February 14th at 12 noon through February 16th at 10PM, 2021. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased directly from www.lagunaplayhouse.com


Laguna Playhouse is an historic Equity theatre located in the charming arts colony of Laguna Beach, California. Steps away from the Pacific Ocean, Laguna Playhouse is known for its year-round season of captivating comedies, dramas, musicals, stand-up comedy and family fare. Named "Best in OC" in Live Theatre by the OC Register every year since 2015, Laguna Playhouse was founded as a community theatre in 1920, making the Playhouse one of the oldest continuously operating, not-for-profit theatres on the West Coast.


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

www.theshowreport.org