REVIEW: The Gin Game (Lincoln Square Theatre)

 

Deal ‘em and weep

 

 

Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates and Fred Wellisch in The Gin Game

        
Lincoln Square Theatre presents
   
The Gin Game
   
Written by D.L. Coburn
Directed by Kristina Schramm
at
Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through November 20   |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

When people are in need of friendship they will sometimes go to great lengths to keep the friends they’ve made, even when those friendships turn sour. The Gin Game, produced by Lincoln Square Theatre, takes an interesting, although somewhat strange, turn from two people looking for companionship to an unrelenting battle of words and anger.

The set resembles a typical retirement home game room with its black and white checkerboard floor, two tables each with two chairs and a stack of games organized in a shelf. It looks as though the room is in need of updating, like something found in place before it’s been rehabbed. That needs-to-be-updated quality gives the set some character and charm.

Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates and Fred Wellisch - Lincoln Square TheatreThe Gin Game reunites Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates and Fred A. Wellisch as Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin. The pair was last seen performing together in Lincoln Square Theatre’s production of The Lady in the Van. It’s clear that these two actors are very comfortable with each other on stage.

The Gin Game opens on Fonsia and Weller preparing themselves in their rooms to go out into the public spaces of their retirement home. It is visitor’s day but neither has anyone there to see them. Fonsia wanders into the game room where she finds Weller alone at a table. Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch are equally animated and instantly present from the moment the lights up come. As they begin to converse with each other, it becomes clear that each has made interesting and distinct character choices. Thorbjornsen-Coates’s Fonsia feels very proper and formal yet shy and nervous as she’s learning the ways of her new home. Wellisch’s Weller is rougher around the edges and more opinionated, but he’s not overly pushy about it. He seems friendly and charming enough. As I said before, these two have instant stage chemistry and it feels like old friends reuniting, even though in the show they’ve only just met. Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch play well off each other, creating interesting dynamics as Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin, the game which the entire show centers around.

As Weller and Fonsia play some friendly rounds of gin, they begin to talk about their lives. Starting with small talk at first, they discuss their previous work, their families and why they’re in a retirement home. Fonsia evidently likes to talk and the conversation provides entertainment for the both. Thorbjornsen-Coates offers a pleasant demeanor that’s hard not to like, and Wellisch seems like someone’s adorable, albeit slightly cynical, grandpa.

GinGamePR3 The action of The Gin Game flows well, which is important particularly for this production. With only two actors and a play that focuses around them playing a card game, it would certainly be easy to lose energy and cause the show to drag. Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch do a terrific job of keeping the energy levels high so they scenes move quickly and keep the audience’s focus.

The more Weller and Fonsia play gin, however, it becomes clear that much more is going on below the surface. With each new hand dealt, Weller becomes more and more agitated, showing his true colors and nasty temper. Angry outbursts take the place of friendly conversation as the show quickly turns from pleasant to tense. It’s unnerving and unexpected at first when Weller just loses it, throwing cards and overturning a table. Wellisch uses this twist in character to really let loose and own Weller’s anger. Fonsia, on the other hand, becomes frightened, irritated and confused. Thorbjornsen-Coates is completely authentic in her reactions to Weller’s intensifying outbursts.

Even with all the anger and resentment building, the two continue to play out rounds of gin. As the game itself becomes more competitive, so do its players, battling each other and belittling each other. Both Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch feel their character’s emotions and reactions through their whole bodies. They not only act with their words but with their body language.

For a solid performance of an intriguing work, check out Lincoln Square Theatre’s The Gin Game.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Gin Game poster - Lincoln Square Theatre

The Gin Game plays at the Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Leavitt St., through November 20. Tickets are $20 or $12 for students and seniors and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com.

   
Production Personnel  

Fred Wellisch
Actor – Weller Martin

Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates
Actor – Fonsia Dorsey

Kristina Schramm
Director

Gina Patterson
Lighting Designer

Gloria Feliciano
Stage Manager

Elayne LeTraunik
Publicity

     
     

REVIEW: Street Scene (National Pastime Theater)

How not to revive a play

 

street-scene-collage

 
National Pastime Theater presents
 
Street Scene
 
Written by Elmer Rice
Directed by Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null
At
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
thru April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Elmer Rice‘s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene has over fifty characters and a heavy handed script that critiques an urban social structure that doesn’t exist anymore. Why did storefront theater National Pastime revive this show? Dated scripts have a certain appeal in revealing how contemporary society has changed or remained stagnant, and evolved acting techniques can often bring new life to a dusty play. Unfortunately, those only apply if the production is good, and National Pastime’s is not. 

Directors Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null fail to transform their assortment of actors into a cohesive ensemble, and much of this can be attributed to a lack of definition concerning the world of the play. Rice’s realist dialogue and characters clash with out-of-tune musical interludes and out of sync movement sequences, drawing attention away from the script and onto the weak choices of the creative team. Why have actors play instruments with a track if they can’t stay on tempo? Or have three actors engaging in expressive hand choreography in a corner of the stage in the midst of legitimate dramatic conflict? Some of the decisions are truly baffling, especially an unintentionally hilarious sound cue of a woman giving birth that falls somewhere between an infant throwing a tantrum and Linda Blair being exorcised. These all could be excused if the acting were above par, yet somewhere in the directors’ conceptualization of the script they forgot about the 23 performers on stage.

The plot of Street Scene concerns the hardships endured by the residents of a tenement in New York City, a group of people ranging from fresh immigrants to those having lived in the city their entire lives. The biggest challenge for the actors is the dialects, and their accuracy varies greatly, with most falling on the low end. The New York accents aren’t consistent, creating confusion about where exactly this stoop is located, and there are times when mother-daughter duo Rose (Melinda Ryba) and Mrs. Maurrant (Rebekka James) drop the dialect completely, making it even more distracting when it mysteriously reappears. The immigrant characters don’t fair any better. Musician Lippo (Michael Solomon) sounds more like Cheech Marin than an Italian, and his wife Mrs. Fiorentino (Kiley Moore) struggles to sound anything but American. Mrs. Olsen’s (Alexandra Shepherd) accent sounds like she can be anywhere from Ireland to eastern Europe.

The dialects are such an obstacle that it is difficult to connect with what the characters are actually saying, and plot points get lost in the muddled language along with any emotional resonance. The actors with the best vocals are the most intriquing, particularly Kaplan (Fred A. Wellisch) and his daughter Shirly (Shannon Hollander), who not only have flawless dialects, but also a clearly defined relationship. Their two windows of the tenement’s nine feature the most dynamic storytelling of the entire show, and watching the weary Shirly keep her rambunctious father in check provides actual entertainment value. Even apart these two actors shine, with Wellisch filling the “elderly revolutionary” role (see Awake and Sing’s Jacob) without becoming too tedious, and Hollander creating the show’s most genuine emotional moment, a melancholy goodbye with the tragic Rose.

Certain members of the supporting cast also provide nice but fleeting moments, like the ultra-prejudiced black neighbor Mrs. Jones (Sandra Watson) who is completely unaware of her son Vincent’s (Geoffrey Davis-El) tendency to rape, although the actual assault is some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen. Prostitute Mae’s (Kelsey Hopper) squeaky sensuality brightens her scenes and impoverished mother Hildebrand (Rachel Griesinger) brings some tension to the piece with her chilly demeanor. Otherwise, the acting is stiff and disconnected across the board. Many actors look uncomfortable on stage, particularly when the goofy choreography begins, and line delivery becomes so monotone and dull as the play stretches into hours that it is a chore to watch.

A second intermission is the final nail in the show’s coffin, killing any momentum the lagging production had gathered. Expecting an audience member to wait another ten minutes for the end of a mediocre production is disrespectful, especially when the third act is twenty minutes long.

 
Rating: ★½
 

Street Scene previews March 19 & 20 and opens on March 26 at 8pm. The performances run Thursdays, Fridays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm to April 25. Tickets are $25. Date night stimulus Thursdays two for one.

        

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