Comedy may not all be in the timing, but a large part of it is and James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson give an acting master class in it in a delightful revival of The Gin Game, D.L. Coburn's bittersweet play that opened last night on Broadway.
Jones and Tyson are two of the theater's most valuable assets and to see them together on any stage is a rare treat not to be missed. Apart from the flawless sense of timing each has perfected over a lifetime, they have the ability to convey a character's deepest emotion with the faintest gesture or most subtle glance. One can believe everything Jones and Tyson say or do onstage.
Tyson has one of the greatest deadpans of any comedian since Jack Benny and she can fill a house with laughter just by slowly turning her expressionless face to the audience to register her dismay at something Jones has just said. And her smallest sigh expresses the very depths of an old woman's loneliness.
Jones manages to find both the strength and weakness of any character he plays and imbues even unlikable ones with compassion. When he reaches out and touches Tyson's hand or puts aside his cane to dance a few steps with her he gives a touching human dimension to what is basically a grumpy old man.
The vehicle for this inspired pairing of Jones and Tyson is Coburn's vintage play about two elderly residents of what was once called an old-folks home who try to connect over a card table. The play first appeared on Broadway nearly 40 years ago with another great acting duo, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.
The director Leonard Foglia couldn't ask for a better couple to revive the play than Tyson and Jones, actors of no less greatness than the play's originators. We first meet Weller Martin sitting along on a junkyard of a patio at the Bentley home for the aged. He is playing solitaire and losing. Enter Fonsia Dorsey, wearing an old housecoat and crying. She is new to the home and Weller engages her in some small talk before suggesting a game of gin rummy.
A card table is not an ideal place to foster a friendship, and Weller's and Fonsia's entire roller-coaster relationship will play out over a deck of cards during the course of the show's two acts. As Weller deals hand after hand - Weller always deals and keeps score - we learn their life stories, or as much of it as necessary to discern why they find themselves alone in a run-down retirement home.
Weller built up his own business over the years only to be elbowed out and left at the end with a pittance to see him through his final years. He was once married, then divorced, and has been out of touch with his three children for years.
Fonsia worked as a secretary, living in constant fear she would misspell a word or that someone would discover she never graduated high school. She, too, was married, divorced, and has a son and two grandchildren she does not see.
There are reasons Weller and Fonsia are estranged from their families and those slowly emerge as they play cards and fume at life and each other. They both are loners, Weller more than Fonsia, who disparage their fellow residents at the home and complain a lot.
Weller is a cynic, a mean old cuss who takes his cards seriously and has a tendency to raise his voice to a shout when things don't go his way. He is mainly angry at where life has dumped him and takes it out on whoever happens to be at hand.
Fonsia is more of an optimist, but she has a tendency to chide and carries a grudge that eats away at her in silence. She clutches her purse to her chest as though it were a protective shield against the world and apologizes every time she wins at gin.
On the surface they are not people you would think you would want to know or be around. But in the hands of Jones and Tyson, they are simply lost, lonely souls for whom one ends up feeling great sympathy and kinship and wish you could see every Visitor's Day at that old-folks home.