Monday, October 19, 2015

NYC Theater Reviews—‘The Gin Game’ on Broadway; ‘Perfect Arrangement’ and ‘Clever Little Lies’ off-Broadway

The Gin Game
Written by D.L. Coburn; directed by Leonard Foglia
Performances through January 10, 2016
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Perfect Arrangement
Written by Topher Payne; directed by Michael Barakiva
Performances through November 6, 2015
Primary Stages, The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Clever Little Lies
Written by Joe DiPietro; directed by David Saint
Performances through January 3, 2016
Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Gin Game (photo: Joan Marcus)

That D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Drama says less about its quality and more about those who chose it. This slight two-hander about two lovably cranky oldsters in a senior citizens' home who bond and bicker while playing cards might be a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, but it's little more than an enjoyable way to pass two hours in the theater with two living legends.

Its premiere starred real-life couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, followed by E.G. Marshall and Maureen Stapleton, as Weller and Fonsia. For this first Broadway staging since 1997 (when Charles Durning and Julie Harris starred), two of our biggest—and oldest—stage stars are headlining: James Earl Jones and Cecily Tyson. And they are superb together, making the play's gimmicky surface—the constant repetition of the games, or of Weller's counting the cards while dealing, or of their cantankerous back-and-forth, which shows their growing (if grudging) affection—seem natural and organic.

There are moments—their tender dance, their final spewing of a certain F-word—when Jones and Tyson transcend the script's built-in limitations, while Leonard Foglia's direction spotlights what's amusing more than what's dramatic. The Gin Game is nowhere near top-drawer, except when pros like the 84-year-old Jones and 90-year-old Tyson play it at the top of their game.

The cast of Perfect Arrangement (photo: James Leynse)

Two off-Broadway plays, Perfect Arrangement and Clever Little Lies, both nod to TV and stage sitcoms to construct their comic tales. Topher Payne's Perfect Arrangement, which explores the closeted lives of homosexuals in Washington, D.C., circa 1950, has a surface resemblance to '50s "family" comedies like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It To Beaver, I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. 

But such wink-winks and nudge-nudges allow Payne to slyly tell his story of two gay couples posing as straight husbands and wives. Bob Martindale, a Department of State employee, and Jim Baxter, his schoolteacher lover, pretend to be married to, respectively, the stay-at-home Millie and her girlfriend Norma, who works with Bob to ferret out Communists during the height of the Red Scare; in fact, they are so good at their job that their unctuous boss Theodore Sunderson wants them weeding out other undesirables and perverts, straight and (it goes without saying) gay. Theodore's ditsy wife Kitty and Barbara Grant, an unapologetically loose straight woman who works with Bob and Norma, round out the septet.

Although Payne wittily lampoons the era's rigid homosexual and straight ideology, at times he's too facile: the men literally go into and out of a closet to reach their apartment adjoining the women's. The laughs are there, and if they don't go too deeply, they do provide food for thought. Michael Barakiva's adroit directing balances sitcom tropes with Payne's more serious provocations, and the cast has great fun with the just-this-side-of-cartoon characters, especially Mikaela Feely-Lehmann, whose Millie is intelligent, forthright and shrewdly funny.

Marlo Thomas in Clever Little Lies (photo: Matthew Murphy)

In Clever Little Lies, Joe DiPietro takes his cue from Neil Simon's one-liner-filled '60s and '70s comedies; that it stars Marlo Thomas also nods to her That Girl sitcom. Unlike Living on Love, a farce that was DOA on Broadway last spring, Lies shows that DiPietro can make his jokes hit their marks, even if too many are vulgar and crass, and, unlike the lazy stereotypes of Love, here there are characters worth spending time with.

When Billy tells his father, Bill, Sr., that he's cheating on his beloved wife Jane—who just had a baby—with a gorgeous 23-year-old personal trainer named Jasmine, dad inadvertently spills the beans to his wife Alice, who invites her son and daughter-in-law to the house to talk. As things are hashed out among the foursome, arguments ensue, drinks are downed, and dad eventually walks out in a huff. But this is no Virginia Woolf: DiPietro simply wants laughs, and he gets them, even throwing a late curveball that sheds new light on mom and dad's marriage, along with Billy's own infidelity.

David Saint's snappy staging smartly builds the conversations toward their humorous payoffs, while his acting quartet—Marlo Thomas (Alice), Greg Mullavey (Bill, Sr.), George Merrick (Billy), Kate Wetherhead (Jane)—perfectly hits the beats of most of the jokes.

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