Dogs Playing Poker
In the evil galaxy of schadenfreude where theater resides, nothing is better than a darkly funny play about hopeless wankers full of big talk and even bigger dreams that will never be realized because of their cycles of obsession and addiction.
In the case of Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice, onstage at Mosaic Theatre, it's the pissing-away of a last quid in a poker game held in the dank basement of a London restaurant. Patriarchal owner Stephen, cook Sweeney, and waiters Frankie and Mugsy (played by Ken Clement, Gregg Weiner, Christian Rockwell, and Todd Durkin, respectively) barely make it through each day without salivating in anticipation of the ritual Sunday poker game.
It is no surprise these men talk larger than they are. Mugsy misguidedly yearns to open his own restaurant. Frankie intends to head to the big poker tables of Las Vegas, and Sweeney just wants to make it to the next day with enough money to spend on his sweet young daughter. They're all a few grand short of success, and this evening will surely make the difference, right?
The first act of Dealer's Choice is meant to be foreplay, setting up conflicts to be settled, or not, in the second act's basement card game. During the first act, director Paul Tei brings out the best of his actors, especially through a well-choreographed screaming match among the ensemble. The play's defining moments also come in the first half. "If you don't play, I don't get to see you," Stephen sadly tells his son Carl about the weekly game, their entire father-son relationship defined in that one remark.
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There are solid, if mixed, performances all around in Tei's camp. As disciplined dad, Clement is kind of a half-baked Lear-on-the-heath kind of guy, and Aran Graham does what he can with what turns out to be an underdeveloped role as the ne'er-do-well son. Weiner, Rockwell, and Durkin provide greater power.
Marber's award-winning play was first produced in London in 1995. In the decade since, the truly masculine bite of poker has been excised. That bite was probably more special in the mid-Nineties than now, for every wanking Hollywood celebrity has since had his place around a Bravo TV green felt table.
Overall Dealer's Choice could just as well end right before intermission. It's clear, even as the audience goes out for a smoke, what will happen next in the story. The characters are all mugs in a food chain of mugs, one playing off the other. Hmm, maybe Dealer's Choice isn't so darkly funny after all.
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