In case the prospect of old age and its frailties doesn’t already frighten you, allow me to direct your attention to the lonesome and raw revival of D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game,” which has just opened at the Golden Theatre.
In this naturalistic update of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1977 play, the dreary state nursing facility where we meet Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey (James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, reunited on Broadway after 50 years) may as well be a haunted house from the grim side of it that’s turned to the audience.
When it rains, a stream of water pours off the gable and onto the porch roof. A pile of detritus some 3-feet deep leans against forlorn siding, just beside the side entrance. Somewhere in that mess, thank goodness, there’s a folding card table.
In “The Gin Game,” Weller and Fonsia meet on that poorly kept porch and recognize that they’re in similarly abandoned circumstances. They cope by casting each other in a better light than their peers; on linen-changing day, Weller tells Fonsia he sees all their housemates lined up in wheelchairs “like rows of wrinkled pumpkin heads.”
Nothing in director Leonard Foglia's (“Master Class”) update of “The Gin Game” is stylized, and that includes the dialogue: This is the place to go if you want to hear Tyson, the esteemed Tony-winning star of 2013’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” tell James Earl Jones -- so regal a fellow he gave voice to Mufasa in “The Lion King” -- that he’s the F-word.
As the two-hour play moves forward, Weller teaches Fonsia to play gin rummy, and they share stories of their lives before old age, but something’s odd: Fonsia keeps winning all the games. And Weller does not take kindly to it.
As Weller, a decaying businessman who was outmaneuvered by his partners, Jones wears clothes that are sizes too big, making him seem literally a man smaller than he once was. Jones seethes and seethes as Fonsia wins and wins, building up to a crescendo of ire that terrifies her.
Fonsia threw out her husband many decades ago, only a few years into their marriage. Without much education, but with clear resilience, she’s had to make her own way. She’s got a son who doesn’t visit, and she tells people it’s because he lives far away, but Weller suspects that’s not the real reason for their estrangement.
Tyson shuffles across the stage like a once-powerful woman not used to having to be careful with her body. It’s a perfectly ladylike performance, until it’s time to put the screws to her verbally abusive new friend, and then she really lets him have it.
Jones and Tyson, it will surprise no one, make for lively sparring partners. (Husband and wife Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy played these roles in the original production.)
Success in gin rummy depends partly on the draw of the cards and partly on a player’s behavior. That’s parallel to the circumstances Weller and Fonsia have in common. Each was affected by external events, but their own responses to those situations got them to the cynical places they are now.
“The Gin Game,” it turns out, has little to do with cards. Rather, it examines the narratives we fabricate in order to tolerate the relentless sadness that piles up with passing decades. Weller and Fonsia, as interpreted by Jones and Tyson, seem to have more of that unhappiness than most.
“The Gin Game,” through Jan. 10 at the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. Tickets: $75-$141. Call 212-239-6200.