THE GIN GAME

SFR Picks—Week of May 23, 2018

By Charlotte Jusinski

Dealt a Good Hand

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The ever-trustworthy New Mexico Actors Lab opens its 2018 season with The Gin Game, a 1976 play by DL Coburn that snagged the Pulitzer Prize in '78. We meet Weller (Jonathan Richards) and Fonsia (Suzanne Lederer), both new to nursing home life and have few visitors. They form a friendship over card games, and as we learn more about them, timeless themes of toxic masculinity, misogyny and dishonesty rear their heads.

Richards, whose sweet performance in last year's Heisenberg endeared him to everyone who saw it, begins the show in that same bemused, affable manner; Lederer is totally transformed from her sociopathic Southern Belle in Glass Menagerie here, becoming a spindly widower who's superficially timid but deep-down fierce.

The two have a conversation that is so natural and free-flowing that it's easy to forget they're onstage. We're flies on the wall as he teaches her how to play gin, and their rapport is flawless. And, as ever with the New Mexico Actors Lab, the "old" work stays fresh for 2018. Many lines had the audience laughing out loud. The timeless humor of the script, however, fades away to a different, more unfortunate type of timelessness: the outing of nasty men. Perhaps in 1976 we would have said "he has a slight temper," but today we call it unacceptable and terrifying. It was heartbreaking to see Richards' Weller turn so bad. He is such an endearing actor who marvelously depicted a man whose anger and self-loathing turns him into a dervish of rage—but Lederer's Fonsia doesn't back down, setting firm boundaries before "boundaries" was a buzzword. I wouldn't mess with that little old lady, and neither should Weller.

Sure, it's a great story for an older crowd, but it's also immensely relevant for "kids these days"—as are most truly masterful pieces of theater. I scribbled the words "toxic masculinity," "boundary queen" and "gaslighting" in my notebook, as modern a series of ideas as you could ever want. (Charlotte Jusinski)

some comments from our patrons

I was absolutely thrilled with The Gin Game! thank you so much for the production! it was completely superb on all counts. huzzahs to all!

What a terrific production you created... beautiful acting and beautiful direction. I had a friend in from NY for whom this was her first theatre experience here and was so impressed and felt we were so lucky to have such quality productions available to us.

The production is superb on all levels.  Suzanne Lederer and Johnathan Richards are a magical team.  Robert Benedetti, the director and founder of the New Mexico Actor’s Lab, shaped a production full of humor and sensitivity.  

Have to confess I had no idea what I was getting into, just knew it as a two-hander for old folks. First I thought I was watching a pleasant old age home comedy, then whump upside my head and heart and guts a tragedy that speaks to the alienation of modern American life grabs me.  No wonder a Pulitzer.  Delivered at the highest levels by two damn fine performances. I’d not expected such a moving theatrical experience in Santa Fe.

It’s now Monday 2:00PM and I’m still bothered by what was evoked on that small stage.  The price and weight of lies and self-delusion, the burden on the soul. The inability of breaking out of the shell that accumulates from an undigested life is tragedy.

Thank you for your commitment to bringing great theatre experience to Santa Fe.

We went to see the Gin Game the other night and enjoyed it tremendously. Thanks for helping to bring some good theater to Santa Fe.

Beautiful production of "The Gin Game".  I saw it last night and was so moved.  I had never seen the play before.  Wonderfully performed and directed.  It has stayed with me is still resonating with me. 

Congratulations on another great start to another compelling season of theater, Beny.

Thank you for bringing great acting and timeless scripts to Santa Fe. The Gin Game was superb and follows in your wonderful tradition of the past several seasons. You are definitely helping to fill a gap in the local live theatre experience.

I had no idea what an interesting and moving play it is. I was surprised by Susan’s role—ahead of what I would have expected from a male writer in the mid 70s. And dealing with elders as detritus at that time was also ahead of its time. I loved the complexity of both characters and appreciated that Jon’s character, monstrous as he could be, was fully human and even sympathetic. But I’m also guessing direction had a lot to do with this!


Pasa Reviews Ages of the Moon

  • Pasatiempo
  • 13 Jul 2018
  • Ages of the Moon, Ages of the Moon Buried Child

The playwright Sam Shepard, who resided in Santa Fe for extended periods until his death a year ago, completed in 2009, which makes it a late work in his distinguished oeuvre. This compact, single-act piece will be new to many playgoers, who can encounter it in a persuasively considered and expertly rendered production by the New Mexico Actors Lab, now running at Teatro Paraguas through July 22.

It inhabits familiar Shepardian territory, balancing on the nervous edge where friendship threatens to cascade into violence — the same tension that made Curse of the Starving Class (premiered in 1978), (also 1978), and True West (1980) such indelible stage classics of their time. Here, two nearly exhausted men in their mid-sixties grasp onto their tenuous friendship just as dysfunctionally as did the members of the families in those earlier plays. During a dark night of the soul, Ames (played by Nicholas Ballas) has summoned Byron (Paul Blott), who has traveled in from considerable distance. They sit on the porch of Ames’ cabin in the Kentucky woods, fishing gear mounted on its rustic planks, a ceiling fan turning lazily overhead. The set, designed by Robert Benedetti (the play’s director) and Argos MacCallum, conveys its essence effectively. Lighting, by Skip Rapoport, casts subtle effect, especially heightening the impact of the fan, which has a part to play on its own.

“Another drink?” ask Ames. “Why not?” responds Byron. “It’s only noon, isn’t it?” As the bourbon flows, they engage in man-talk: sexual prowess, long-gone friends, departed lovers, old songs, aging. Both actors render precise characterizations, Ballas being a cranky Ames, Blott an untethered Byron — or is it just the bourbon, or have their memories grown unreliable, or are they making things up? After a while, it’s the middle of the night and as a long-awaited eclipse of the moon takes place, they reach out in friendship as demonstrative as the restrained norms of manliness allow.

Shepard wrote this play for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and it is surely no coincidence that the ghost of Ireland’s Samuel Beckett seems to hover nearby. Notwithstanding the unmistakable American flavor, one senses a Godot-like combination of humor, mystery, and tragedy here — but in

the end is surely imminent. By the conclusion of this affecting, hourlong act, Ballas and Blott have reeled viewers in, grasping for companionship as their expiration dates approach. — James M. Keller

 

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I saw Rapture, Bluster, Burn last night at Teatro Paraguas here in Santa Fe. GO SEE THIS SHOW. excellent acting, direction, production design. the ensemble is right on the money with authentic chemistry and depth of character. thought i was actually watching people with hearts and souls live their real lives in the privacy of their own backyard. very taken by this multi generational story--you can take your teenager or your grandma. they both will get it. so proud of Leslie Fleming-Mitchell, Ann Roylance and David Welborn. a great night of theatre. don't miss this heady, funny, relevant and moving piece. they are up until june 24th. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Glass Menagerie • Talkin’ Broadway • 2017

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Taking on the iconic American play The Glass Menagerie, which has, since its Chicago premiere in 1944, challenged the best of our stage actors and directors, is no easy task. Perhaps the biggest shoes to fill in all of American theater are those of Laurette Taylor, whose Broadway performance as Amanda Wingfield, mother to Tom and Laura, has been counted, by stage veterans lucky enough to have seen her in the mid-1940s, as the gold standard for stage performance.

Into those shoes steps Suzanne Lederer, whose work in the New Mexico Actors Lab production of this classic Tennessee Williams play at Teatro Paraguas is easily comparable to any of the the other actresses who have essayed this difficult role. Ms. Lederer, who has acquired a long resume in television and on the professional stage (she played Constanze, wife of Mozart, in the Broadway production of Amadeus), lays bare so successfully the complicated emotional chemistry of a character who has one foot in the past and the other in the quicksand of the present, that audience reaction on opening night was both vocal and palpable. One of the highlights of the production comes when Amanda, anticipating a visit by a potential “gentleman caller” for her daughter Laura, becomes, through emotional projection, the recipient of that caller herself: a giddy, Southern belle-butterfly winging gossamer around the newly arrived Jim. A scene that could be uncomfortably creepy becomes, through Lederer's interpretation of Amanda's return to the glories of her youth, sweet and poignant and heartbreaking. . . .

 

AGES OF THE MOON

Many years ago, Don and I dropped into a tiny theatre in LA that was showing a play titled “ The Unseen Hand” by this new playwright Sam Shepard.  We left the theatre breathless with excitement over the work we saw.  

Don and I felt the same way today.  Nick and Paul are superb together.   Your direction brought out the poetry in Shepard’s words. 

Thank you, thank you for creating NMAL.  A treasure for our theatre community.

 

For Lack of Flash-Bangs

Ages of the Moon from New Mexico Actors Lab

By Charlotte Jusinski

|New Mexico Actors Lab shows are not flashy. They're not exhilarating, they're not heart-pounding. There are no pyrotechnics involved and, in Sam Shepard's Ages of the Moon, up now at Teatro Paraguas, when Ames shoots a ceiling fan with a shotgun, the resulting white smoke that spews from the fixture is the most technically advanced thing I've seen from a NMAL production in a year. They're all about talk and intricate character relationships; you must pay attention, because there are no flash-bangs to snap you out of a daydream, should you slip into one.

That being said, these shows are almost always nicely done. Every time I see a NMAL production, usually directed by the company's founder Robert Benedetti, I can't help but to think they're like having consistently good sex with a long-term spouse: It's not wild infatuation, it's not adolescent lust, you don't fidget all the next day desperate to do it again—but you also won't ever turn down another go-around, it's just what you need, and everyone goes to sleep satisfied.

Ages of the Moon is no exception. The opening weekend sold well, with Saturday's performance even requiring extra chairs tucked into corners—not unexpected for the first Shepard piece presented in town since the sometimes-Santa Fean writer died in 2017. It's an expectedly gruff and surly two-actor piece from the pensive man's-man of playwrights; in short order we learn that Ames' wife has found a name and phone number written in a girlish hand on one of his fishing maps, and kicked him out of the house. He retreats to his man-cave, a cabin in some Kentucky woods, where he calls up his old friend Byron in tears, speaking of ending his life. The show opens on the two sexagenarian men on the porch, drinking copious whiskey and waxing poetic about the past—polka-dot dresses and matching high-heels, drunken-stoned nights, all the wonderful ways things used to be and will never be again.

About NMAL's intricate character relationships, this show is another casting success from Benedetti. He's spent a storied career learning how to recognize talent, assembling an experienced and deft company of sorts, and the dependably good folks he gets onstage together almost always succeed. "My book on directing starts with the statement that 'directing is the art of correcting the mistakes you made in casting,'" Benedetti tells me via email. "I first of all try to internalize the life of the play at a deeply preverbal level … [and] to create an environment in which that energy can manifest itself anew, without premeditating how the play will live in these particular actors and in this particular space; rather I strive to be fully present and open to the actors' impulses and interactions."

Here, expectedly, Nicholas Ballas (Ames) and Paul Blott (Byron) have most of that necessary chemistry. Once they get rolling, the script carries them effortlessly.

Shepard's work harks to the manly-man-literature cornerstones Brokeback Mountain and A River Runs Through It, both favorites greatly due to their contrasts: Dudes in the woods doing dude-in-the-woods things (herding sheep, fishing, being generally stoic), but also quietly struggling with intense emotions and fighting to maintain societal expectations at every turn. Ages does this too; within a few minutes of opening, Ames is discussing a "minor blow job" (Byron is flabbergasted that such a thing could ever be anything but major) and Byron is lamenting his waning ability to get it up. Fishing rods hang on the wall, guns are drawn, violence makes its way in; so many misandrist tropes that you expect (though perhaps don't desire) from a play about men.

The surliness wanes, however, and they become deeply human. Blott's Byron, at first the more irreverent of the two, delivers a haunting monologue, one of the best I've heard in a while, about love and loss and possible total insanity; and Ballas exhibits great range as Ames swings from despondent Good Ol' Boy to one who suffers from—again—possible total insanity. Whenever you think the show's jumped the shark, it pulls itself right back in an almost palpable collective sigh. If there aren't literal pyrotechnics, Shepard's writing provides plenty of dynamism in character and story.

All that being said of men and manliness, this show is, as it were, very concerned with the concept of the woman. The title, at first easily forgettable, must be remembered: The men have met on a night that there will be a total eclipse of the moon. Byron, when drunkenly opining about women and how they function differently from rooted, earthbound men, gestures to the moon and suggests: "They're plugged into it, somehow." Later, wrapped in a blanket on the porch, he mumbles more: "I want to see this moon—this miracle, here," repeating a running joke that the eclipse, a phenomenon which happens often, could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The play opens with Ames saying that he likes things to be what they are; a tree a tree, a man a man, a moon a moon. And while all is mostly as it seems here (two men, a porch, whiskey), there are endless layers down into subterranean fractal caves of implication. These guys must be crazier and much bigger assholes than they are letting us see; or are they far more sensitive and soft than their sullied, surly appearances suggest?

Mankind, rooted in the earth, eclipses womankind in the moon, throwing deep shadow. A finnicky ceiling fan becomes a foil for Catholic hocus-pocus. Even the set and the blocking, results of edited impulse, are constructed with meaning: "The space must be an expression of the event," Benedetti writes of the building and the movements therein.

But pay close attention, because there are no flashing lights to show the way.


 

More reviews will be posted here as they occur.