In 2014 I went to the massive, impossibly sprawling Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland (reporting on some of it here). To find the gems in the solo performance genre, you must sit in countless small venues and watch a lot of one-person shows.
But you can count on whatever’s playing at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theater to be top quality. It’s where one of Scotland’s most highly-regarded young playwrights, Gary McNair, performed two of his most acclaimed Fringe shows: “Donald Robertson is Not a Stand-Up Comedian” in 2014 and “A Gambler’s Guide to Dying” in 2015. Both won Festival awards.
From Edinburgh to Santa Monica Airport, “A Gambler’s Guide to Dying” is making its U.S. premiere at Ruskin Group Theatre (across from Barker Hangar).
Veteran actor, director and company member Paul Linke directs long-time friend, TV/film/stage actor Maury Sterling. It’s also being performed now by the playwright in Adelaide, Australia and opens at Charleston, South Carolina’s venerable Spoleto Festival this June. It may hit New York in 2017.
McNair’s play is about the relationship between a grandfather and grandson and others who inhabit their private world. The grandfather made a winning bet on England (a traitorous act in Scotland) during the 1966 World Cup and got hooked on gambling. When he’s diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1998 and given a few months to live, he hands his lifelong winnings to a bookmaker, betting that he’ll survive to the millennium. It becomes a public sensation.
Is it a true story? McNair won’t say, according to director Paul Linke. “I asked him in our first conversation and he won’t answer that question. He said, ‘If I tell you it’s a true story you’ll think less of me as a writer, and if I tell you I made it up, you’ll also think less of me as a writer!’”
But says Linke, “Gary’s fashioned something so well-shaped that in his program notes he says we can play it any way we want, casting all the parts or just having one person do it.”
Linke opted to direct it as a solo show because, “Maury Sterling is such a great actor, he’s able to create the relationships at the heart of it, especially between the boy and his granddad with the love that’s there and the wisdom and the eccentricity, plus all the others that he brings to life.”
Sterling, whose extensive credits include a current gig on Bravo network’s “A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce” (oddly sharing the same initials as “A Gambler’s Guide to Dying”), had never done a solo stage performance.
“At first I thought, great play, thanks but I can’t do this. But that was the fear reaction. Then early on in rehearsals Paul said to me, ‘Welcome to the ranks of solo performers,’ and at first I thought, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ But now I have a very humble appreciation for the medium and Paul’s leadership has been amazing.”
Sterling also has some Scots heritage. “My middle name is Wallace, and although I shouldn’t admit this in public, I’ve been playing around with a Scottish accent since I was eight, talking to myself using different accents in the back seat of my parents’ car.”
Despite the years of back seat practice, he also worked with dialogue coach Jessica Drake to perfect his accent. The highest compliment he’s received came on opening night from a Glasgow native who said he sounded authentic.
Linke says Maury Sterling “makes it look effortless because of the amount of work he put into it. We did a few rehearsals in December but once we got started, we’ve gone at it five days a week, at least three hours a day. You can’t get that result without putting in the kind of effort that Maury did, and we’re all the better for it.”
“What Gary’s done,” says Sterling, “is created something that every time I perform it, something else moves me, and that’s just amazing.”
Though Linke co-starred in the film “Parenthood,” and played comic relief character, Artie Grossman on NBC’s “CHiPs,” I will forever associate him with his solo show “Time Flies When You’re Alive.” The play, about facing his wife’s cancer and death, was based on the eulogy he delivered at her funeral in 1986. It was a hit onstage and later became an HBO special.
I asked if the dramatic theme of impending death held special resonance.
“This play definitely evokes similar notes and inspires in similar ways, so yes, I did feel a kinship when I read it. But when I saw clips of Gary performing it, I really felt like we could be brothers. We’ve since had great chats on the phone and I feel a real connection to him.”
“A Gambler’s Guide to Dying” is onstage at Ruskin Group Theatre through April 29. For tickets and info visit www.ruskingrouptheatre.com or call (310) 397-3244.
L.A.’s your table
If you’ve ever struggled to explain Los Angeles to a non-native, now you can just point them to the new documentary, “City of Gold,” to experience our community’s multi-ethnic culinary culture through the eyes and heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer and Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, Jonathan Gold.
This beautiful, thoughtful and inspiring documentary opens on March 11 at The Landmark in West L.A., and there are several special event screenings coming up.
Jewish Journal Los Angeles is hosting a screening on Saturday, March 12 at 7:15 p.m. followed by a Q&A with editor Rob Eshman and Jonathan Gold. Tickets here: http://cityofgold.brownpapertickets.com.
And on Monday, March 14 the non-profit C-CAP, Careers through Culinary Arts Program will benefit from ticket sales to a 6 p.m. reception at Landmark’s Wine Bar, including Gold’s favorite bites, plus beer and wine; a 7:30 p.m. screening with popcorn by dessert queen Sherry Yard; and a post-screening discussion/Q&A with KCRW’s Evan Kleiman, Gold and director Laura Gabbert. Tickets here: https://www.ccapinc.org/locations/los-angeles-city-of-gold-event/.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications.
Photo: Maury Sterling in the Los Angeles Premiere of “A Gambler’s Guide to Dying” by Gary McNair at Ruskin Group Theatre. Photo by Ed Krieger.