Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dealer's Choice

Albedo Productions (toured by Critical Stages); Theatre Royal, Hobart, September 22-23

When I last played poker, there were one-cent pieces around to bet with. That’s how long ago it was. Even then, I barely knew what I was doing (I think I was eleven).

Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice is a play entirely built on a bedrock of poker: the game, the habit, the parallels with life, the adrenaline, the strategies, the jargon. It’s also about the compulsion of poker; these six men play the game to fill absences of other passion in their lives.

Did I mention that I know nothing about poker? But on balance, it didn’t matter. Sure, there were minutes at a time when I hadn’t a clue what any of the dialogue meant: five card high-low, the wheel’s in, call, call, I’m out, you can’t have had trip four, call... (forgive me if you’re a poker player; that’s how I heard it!). But – and Marber and director Craig Ilott understand this implicitly – any ignorance of this dialogue’s surface meaning only serves to focus attention on the fine dynamics between actors, and the nuances of mood and characterisation.

I adore The West Wing: I don’t understand the first thing about the American political system, but the characters, the pace and rhythm of dialogue, the humour, and ultimately the moments of deep, genuine dramatic intensity are the real treats. I felt the same way about Dealer’s Choice.

Dealer’s Choice is a little slow to begin, although a strong atmosphere is there even as the audience enter; a chef goes quietly about his business in the split stage (kitchen/dining room), and a perfectly compiled soundtrack situates us immediately in the London restaurant where the play is set.

The first half is so self-conscious about establishing characters that many become caricatures instead: both obvious and stilted. The humour to begin with is, similarly, a little predictable, and a little too reminiscent of a dated British sitcom. Some of the motivations and developments of narrative are also forced, as the group of guys who work in the restaurant prepare for their regular poker game that evening.

It is in the second half that Marber’s writing shines, and gives this production the opportunity to do the same. We’re still in the restaurant, but downstairs where the game is. It’s hard work for an audience to get in to this world. Lights are dim, the round poker table is exclusive and the staging obscures actors’ faces -- and then there is that impenetrably jargonistic table-talk. But these obstacles are neither careless nor preclusive; the strength of both writing and ensemble performance connect with an audience despite the physical and practical barriers they must cross.

I’ve got no interest in gambling, but the play briefly made me want to be a part of that world: the adrenaline, the almost-seediness, the insularity, the intimacy of it. For a play to stimulate that level of unwilling desire in an audience member is credit to the writing, the direction, and the performances.

The casting is strong; the script is dependent on a tight ensemble of contrasting and complementary performances, and this production delivers. The characters balance each other for both the humour and the dramatic tension of the work. Christopher Stollery as Ash (an interloper into the restaurant game, and a professional player with his own debts to recoup from games elsewhere) and Sam North as Carl (the restaurant owner’s prodigal son) both excel.

Critical Stages, a non-profit touring body, should be commended for giving this production a wider audience than its original 2004 Sydney season. But it is a pity that it had such a short, mid-week run here in Hobart – perhaps an intrinsic challenge of mounting a wide tour without high commercial funding...

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

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