Alan Blumenfeld, Katherine James in “The Gin Game” at Theatricum Botanicum PHOTO BY KEVIN HUDNELL

THEATRE WORTH WATCHING

 “The Gin Game” at Theatricum Botanicum’s smaller S. Mark Taper Pavilion in Topanga Canyon, and “Witch” at the Audrey Skirball Kenis black box theatre at Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, demonstrate the high quality of smaller-staged theatrical productions in L.A., brought to life by topnotch acting talent.

 THE GIN GAME

 Meeting cute at a senior residential care facility isn’t necessarily a set-up for a rollicking romance. And “The Gin Game” is definitely not a romance. But it’s also more than a game of cards; it’s a study of life, luck, love, and loneliness. 

 Real life married couple Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James originated these roles in a 2018 production imported from the Sierra Madre Playhouse, directed there, as here, by Christian Lebano. They’ve both been longtime members of Theatricum’s acting family.

 The wooded outdoor amphitheatre, under the shade of a giant oak tree, houses a pared-down stage set: a wobbly fold-up card table, a couple of chairs, a wheelchair hidden under a tarp, a storage bench and some paper lanterns. 

 Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey are strangers when they meet at this rundown senior home.  There’s nothing Weller likes about this place, not the staff, not the other residents, not the entertainment that’s continually droning in the background. It’s visitors’ day, and no one’s here for him.

 While he’s playing solitaire, a new resident walks into the space, sobbing. Fonsia is the epitome of prim righteousness, never without her handbag and happy to share that she could have chosen to stay at the Presbyterian old age home, but instead is here. She, too, has no visitors.

 Weller invites her to play a game of Gin, which she knew as Gin Rummy, and sort of remembers how to play; he teaches her a few new rules, which she picks up immediately. Fonsia has extraordinary luck, and it’s no spoiler to say she wins every game from beginning to end of the play, setting events in motion.

 As they play and get to know the details of each other’s life, what emerges is Weller’s anger at his poor luck, how it impacted his life and left him here. Slowly but surely, Fonsia’s façade of rectitude crumbles as she reveals the factors that landed her alongside him.

 This play requires an act of courage: it’s almost two-and-a-half hours of non-stop dialogue with pitch perfect timing by two actors of a certain age (not including the occasional drop in by a nursing aide, who’s really a stagehand).

“The Gin Game” won playwright D.L. Colburn a Pulitzer Prize, and it’s been performed by theatre royalty: from its premiere performance in 1977 on Broadway, starring married couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, to James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in 2015, at ages 84 and 90, respectively. 

 This couple belongs in the pantheon.  

“The Gin Game” will have just six more performances, on Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m.  Visit www.theatricum.com for tickets or call (310) 455-3723.

  

A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL

Playwright Jen Silverman’s “Witch” is very loosely based on a 1621 English play called “The Witch of Edmonton,” but wow, is the plot ever completely new.  There’s an effective juxtaposition between contemporary language and ideas and the 17th century period costumes and setting; it’s witty, darkly, humorous and ultimately thought-provoking. 

Would you sell your soul to the Devil? Here named Scratch, wonderfully portrayed by Evan Jonigkeit, he’s traveling the world to persuade people they’d be better off without their souls, trying to buy them with promises of vast material and emotional satisfaction. The village boasts some easy marks, and he starts with the low-hanging fruit, trading on gossip as he approaches them.

Elizabeth Sawyer (Maura Tierney) is the so-called Witch, the convenient scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in the village. She once worked at the castle (and left under questionable circumstances) where Sir Arthur (Brian George) despairs that Cuddy (Will von Vogt), his Morris Dance-loving son (read: gay), will never provide an heir to continue his lineage and take over his property.

 Cuddy hates/loves the bold, self-confident Frank Thorney (Ruy Iskandar), whom Sir Arthur has taken under his wing as a potential heir, threatening Cuddy’s position. Frank is a handsome young man from a poor family, filled with ambition, who’s secretly married to Winnifred (Vella Lovell), Sir Arthur’s servant.  A subplot ensues.

Scratch initially approaches Cuddy, offering his heart’s greatest desires (like becoming a full-time Morris Dancer). But lurking in Cuddy’s heart is his desire, not only for Frank’s destruction but for Frank himself. Next, Scratch moves on to Frank, whose desire is to become Sir Arthur’s heir; Cuddy’s an obstacle to overcome.

And finally, Scratch reaches out to his Waterloo, Elizabeth. But from this most obvious candidate, with plenty of reasons to seek revenge on her community, he receives an unexpected answer: “No.” After repeated visits and late-night conversations, he finds himself drawn to Elizabeth, whose intelligence beguiles him. And he seems to forget his mission as he falls for her. 

The things that Frank and Cuddy wish for come true, but with dreadful consequences. And in a surprise twist, Elizabeth finally decides her soul is worth relinquishing, for a devastating price.

What are we willing to sell our souls for? What are we willing to sacrifice? Do we even need the Devil to persuade us? I won’t reveal the denouement, but I will say that “Witch” is worth your while.  Bonus points: there’s no intermission, my favorite kind of play.

“Witch” will be onstage through September 29.  https://www.geffenplayhouse.org/witch (310) 208-5454.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.   

 

 

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