October 20, 2018

Desperate Gambles

As a metaphor for life, there is nothing to beatgambling. Raising the ante, bluffing, keeping a poker-face, winning,losing, staying in the game, these are all transactions whichsymbolize the pressures, conquests and defeats which characterize ourdaily lives. Of all of them, the most important is “staying in thegame” which is just another way of saying, clinging to life.

Clockwise from center front, Dan Hildebrand(back of head), Patrick Kerr, Denis Arndt, Daniel Davis, DaraghO’Malley and Adam Scott in “Dealer’s Choice.”

I am convinced that the appeal of gambling is thatit offers a psychic replay of the trials and quests of life incircumstances that persuade the gambler that he can outwit thearbitrary motions of fate. Symbolically, the dealer is God andalthough He most always wins the toss, there are enough instances ofthe player triumphing over Him to instill the idea that, if the rightsystem can be devised, a propitious wind made to prevail, He can bevanquished. Outwitting God means outwitting Death and any form ofactivity, whether it be religion or gambling that holds out theprospect of such a prize is going to regularly attractconverts.

Although the surface of Patrick Marber’s play”Dealer’s Choice” appears to be concerned with the exigencies ofpoker, on a subtextual level it is about surviving the punishments ofcruel gods. In that sense, it is the most classical work to be seenin L.A. in many a season. All of its characters suffer from tragicflaws. All are victims of a hubris which will ultimately cause theirdownfall. All are trying to avoid a predestination from which nonecan escape.

But none of the foregoing suggests the gaiety andwit on hand at the Mark Taper Forum where Marber’s parable on pokeris now playing. For although in its bedrock, “Dealer’s Choice” is atragedy, its surface bristles with scintillating one-liners androllicking comic banter. Sometimes more than the traffic canstand.

In the first act, the play deftly introduces us toa variety of characters in a downmarket London restaurant all of whomsuffer from the same compulsion. In the second act, the GrandCeremony in which these compulsions are dramatically played out isthe midnight poker game. It soon becomes clear that theirgambling-mania is merely a cover for a larger malaise which, to onedegree or another, has infected them all. There are severalcirculating conflicts in the play but the main one centers on therelationship between Stephen, the paternal restaurateur and Carl, hisgambling-addicted son. The father dispenses a lot of time and energytrying to save the boy from the fatal weakness that has alreadyclaimed his own life and which he shows no signs of kicking. Finally,he tries and fails to rescue him from the clutches of a sinisterprofessional gambler to whom he is heavily in debt, and the cycle,unbroken and unbreakable, continues to revolve.

Marber invests almost all of his characters withhis own literary heft and so cooks, waiters and small-time con menare amazingly blessed with literary frames of reference and morearticulateness than would seem appropriate to their callings. Likethe expert card-player Marber probably is, he somewhat stacks hisdeck in regard to his characters and when the evening is over, onealmost feels like asking to examine the deck to make sure it isn’tmarked. The author’s remorseless cleverness is a little like being inthe presence of a comedian who is so unflaggingly “on,” he doesn’trealize he is beginning to browbeat his audience. But in the secondact, Marber hones into the bone- marrow behind the play’s softunderbelly and we are genuinely drawn into the whirlpool of desperatepeople trapped in inescapable circumstances.

Director Robert Egan has done a masterful job witha play that could have easily dwindled into caricature. He hasassembled a cast of both Americans and Brits and managed to produce awell-integrated ensemble with a consistent tone of voice and aperfect balance between comedy and pathos. Denis Arndt shuttlessmoothly between geniality and suffering as the restaurateur; PatrickKerr is pathetically vulnerable as a waiter who can’t say no; DaraghO’Malley, calm and grounded, as the cook who forfeits the wages heshould have spent entertaining his visiting daughter, and DanielDavis, combining the evil of George Zucco with the smarminess ofLionel Atwill, is excellent as an inveterate gambler trying to climbout of the hole. David Jenkins’ London restaurant setting perfectlycaptures the seedy, greasy-spoon atmosphere which pervades so manymid-sized English bistros which, with a pretension towardsclassiness, never quite manage to achieve class.

Charles Marowitz, Jewish Journal theatercritic, writes from Malibu.