Gin is an easy game. Putting together three neat “runs” as quickly as possible, hopefully sticking your opponent with a confused muddle of cards, is good for big points. I started playing when I was kid, first against my dad on fishing trips, and then against some of the other boys in my Scout troop on camping trips. People have played gin in London and Vegas for ridiculously high stakes, but the game doesn’t have the shoot-‘em-up western cache that poker does, maybe because it’s played one-on-one instead of around a table full of rowdy dudes.
But whether it’s gin, poker, or blackjack, cards as a metaphor have always enthralled us on both stage and screen. We keep returning to the set-up: Mamet’s House of Games, Rounders with Matt Damon and Ed Norton, and now 21, the Kevin Spacey movie based on MIT grifter Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House. Invariably, all of these productions use card games to illuminate the ruthless ability to deceive, both ourselves and others, which is so necessary for success in America. It’s a simple and familiar emotional response: we’re supposed to sit there and cheer the heroes for having the courage to gamble, while simultaneously lamenting their inability to quit while they’re ahead.
The metaphor is so familiar that if it’s not played perfectly—if the dealer has too many obvious tells—the story can come off as horribly cheesed out. We get it, mother—we’re not supposed to gamble. But The Jungle Theatre’s production of The Gin Game is one extended card game in which the obviousness of the metaphor is the entire point.
The set up is simple: two senior citizens, Weller and Fonsia, meet on the porch of a slummed-out nursing home. Weller teaches Fonsia to play gin, and Fonsia proceeds to kill Weller in hand after hand. She just crushes him, over and over again, to the point where beginner’s luck seems like less and less of an option. Bain Boehlke’s Weller is physically decrepit, tottering around the stage, barely able to reach his shoes in order to shine them with the same hankie that catches his sputum. But Boehlke’s a big square man, and he uses that raw abscess of a voice he has to punctuate every “goddammit!” and “shit!” with vague connotations of a forgotten physical malice. And Wendy Lehr’s Fransia is just as weathered, but there are touches of feminine posturing—a tightened bun, an erect spine—that speak to a repression and a moral rectitude that may have been used too conveniently in the past.
As Weller continues to lose, things deteriorate from a warm, grateful back-and-forth between two obviously lonely old people, to the nastiness that comes with the helplessness of settling into uncomfortable old roles. The binary dynamic of the gin game—father vs. mother, luck vs. judgment, nerves vs. courage—become a relentless reminder of each player’s real-life past failures. The metaphor gets thrown in each character’s face to the point where they’re forced to confront their own shortcomings. But they can’t quit playing. As Weller points out bleakly, “What else are you gonna do?”
Like any game, gin matches nerves against will—you keep waiting for that last card to drop, knowing your opponent is doing the same thing. The Gin Game is a reminder of the physical nature of nerves and will. Wisdom only goes so far. As we age, our nerves don’t get any steadier and our will doesn’t grow any stronger. Probably the contrary, in fact.
The laughter in the audience becomes more and more hollow as everybody begins to see their own anxieties and hypocrisies emerge from the game. Just like old Weller and Fransia, as their game progresses on stage, it becomes impossible, back there in the dark, not to confront your own self.
But what else are you gonna do?