Cicely Tyson turns 91 in December and there’s a moment in the uneven Broadway revival of The Gin Game when the years fall away, when she is evanescent, transformed for a quickly passing instant into a delighted, girlish young woman. The source of this glinting good cheer is some offstage band music and the reluctant decision of James Earl Jones to take her in his arms and dance. The look on her face, yes delight, is as memorable as any we recall from a career that began with The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1968) and her Oscar-nominated turn in Sounder (1972) right through to her stirring, Tony-winning performance two years ago in Horton Foote’s The Trip To Bountiful. She’s magnificent.
Here, she’s playing Fonsia Dorsey, relegated, like Jones’ Weller Martin, to what we used to call an old folks’ home. It’s a pretty dilapidated-looking place (masterfully realized right down to the peeling paint by Riccardo Hernandez, who also did the spot-on costumes), and truth be known, they’re pretty dilapidated looking people as well. Long estranged from their children, both struggle to hide the scars of lives in which disappointment mostly outweighed triumph.
What brings them together in D.L. Coburn’s 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander is the card game of the title. It’s Weller’s obsession and he cajoles Fonsia into playing with him on the back porch of the home, ignoring the activities offered inside. I’m giving away nothing by revealing that Fonsia’s unbroken winning streak is the spine of the play as Weller’s astonishment quickly turns to rage that results in some flinging of furniture and a, well let’s call it a deterioration in his gentlemanly demeanor.
Of course Jones, too, has enjoyed a spectacular stage career along with his work in movies and TV; at 84 his mahogany voice is not the only greatness still about him; it merely underscores his equally commanding stature, as was evident in his recent Broadway appearances, notably opposite Vanessa Redgrave in another revival of a Pulitzer drama, Driving Miss Daisy.
Under Leonard Foglia’s sensitive direction, the actors give their all to an almost-good play that gets credit for delivering a measure of spark and dignity to the usually overlooked elderly. It certainly worked for the married Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the original Broadway production, and it mostly works here.
The stars exude a comfort level from working together over the years. So it may seem churlish to point out that Jones is more tentative here than usual, more halting in his speeches, more brittle than we expect Weller to be. Several exchanges faltered because of that, losing the snap necessary, and as a result, the play seemed even more schematic and predictable than I’d remembered. Still, there’s great pleasure in seeing these two masters duking it out over a card table. Call it a straight flush, if not quite a royal one.
Another revival, of Sam Shepard’s scalding Fool For Love, has made the move from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where I first saw it in the summer of 2014, to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway house, the Friedman Theater, with its cast mostly intact. That’s Sam Rockwell (Laggies, The Way Way Back) as Eddie, a cowboy, and Nina Arianda (Venus In Fur) as his lover, May, along with Gordon Joseph Weiss (Annie, All Is Bright) as The Old Man and, new to the production, Tom Pelphrey as Martin, May’s suitor, in for a very big surprise or three.
The setting is a crappy motel in the Mojave Desert, where May has been living since Eddie disappeared from the trailer home they once shared. In the opening scene, she is hunched over the edge of the bed; he approaches her solicitously, stroking her hair as if to pull her out of a dream or a stupor; hard to tell which. Over the course of the next 85 minutes or so, he will head for the door, she will clutch him in a savage hold, chairs and May will be expertly lassoed and both will get slapped around in a Strindbergian scenario but for the push-me/pull-you smackdown that has comic edge but a scorching interior of feral hunger and human confusion. To paraphrase the old joke, they can’t live without each other and they can’t kill each other either.
Outside the room, the Old Man comments — he might be a figment of their imagination, though he’s flesh enough to demand a shot from the tequila bottle Eddie produces.
The two stars are superb in Daniel Aukin’s straightforward production but I still think, as I did the first time I saw this production, that they’re acting in different shows. They throw off plenty of heat — but not at each other, and that’s fatal to a play that insists we believe in the intensity of the relationship.
Primary Stages, an essential off-Broadway powerhouse that performs in the Duke On 42nd Street Theatre, has an attractive and engaging curiosity in Topher Payne’s Perfect Arrangement. And I do mean attractive: This subversive dramedy set in the Washington D.C of the McCarthy era (Joe, not Gene), astutely staged by Michael Barakiva, would be worth the price of admission just for Jennifer Caprio’s deliriously scrumptious costumes, especially for the women.
The arrangement of the title has to do with the apartment building where Bob and Millie Martindale (Robert Eli and Mikaela Feely-Lehmann) live next door to Jim and Norma Baxter (Christopher J. Hanke and Julia Coffey). That’s how it looks in the opening scene at the Martindales, where the two couples are entertaining Bob’s boss from the FBI and his wife, Ted and Kitty Sunderson (Kevin O’Rourke and Jennifer Van Dyck). They’re Technicolor, Wonderful World Of Disney wholesome paragons of ’50s middle-class tidiness, the women in taffeta and crinoline dresses that fan like squash blossoms when they soft-land on a velour couch, the men in brown tweed suits with vests.
Ah, but when the Sundersons depart, the partners realign: This cozy set-up hides the fact the the real couples are Bob and Jim, and Millie and Norma. The apartments connect through a hidden door — yes, they’re constantly in and out of the closet — and the arrangement has been fine until lonely Kitty befriends Millie, showing up at the most inconvenient times. And then there’s Barbara Grant (Kelly McAndrew), a ghost from Millie’s past who is trouble.
Like Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina last season, which fictionalized the true story of a ’50s weekend retreat for men who liked, or needed, to cross-dress, Perfect Arrangement peers into a world many of us probably didn’t know existed: In this case, bourgeoise gay couples living in the shadows, terrified that before the era of red-baiting was over, they would be targeted as dangers to the nation’s security. As the perfect arrangement begins to unravel — in part because of Bob, who’s charged with flushing out homosexuals in the Department, and Norma, a secretary there, their vulnerability turns into desperation. How long they will remain complicit in order to maintain their secret lives is the moral dilemma that gives the Perfect Arrangement unexpected power. It’s lovely to look at — and treacherous as hell.
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