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Loser's Poker 

All bets are off in Patrick Marber's wry and pointed Dealer's Choice

Wednesday, Sep 20 2000
Patrick Marber's second, strangely empty play, Closer (which the Berkeley Rep staged in June), is hard to reconcile with his first play, Dealer's Choice, a solid, steam-driven story about card players that beats David Mamet at his favorite game. If Mamet's been at risk of disappearing up his own rear end for several years, his influence on younger playwrights from Britain -- especially Martin McDonagh and Marber -- has been salutary.

Dealer's Choice takes place in a London restaurant where the cook and waitstaff play a weekly after-hours poker game with the boss and his no-good son. In the first act we see a stage split between the small-tabled restaurant proper and the greasy, chrome-shelved kitchen. In the restaurant sits the boss, Stephen, counting receipts or something, while Mugsy and Sweeney and Frankie come and go in the kitchen, preparing food and discussing poker. From the first minute the play has the noise and confusion of real conversation, fast-paced and swirling; Sweeney even cooks real food.

The first act's gist is that poker debts are non-negotiable, like death, and that everyone involved in the weekly game has an urgent, personal motivation to beat everyone else. Mugsy wants to start his own restaurant. Carl, the boss' son, wants to go in with Mugsy but has a clutch of ugly gambling debts. Frankie wants to go on a trip; Sweeney just wants the self-discipline not to lose more than he can afford (he's seeing his young daughter the next day). Marber posits the quantity theory of money (the idea that there's only so much money to go around) by showing what happens a few hours before a card game.

When a suave professional gambler named Ash turns up at the restaurant and quietly demands a four-thousand-pound debt from Carl, Carl invites him to play at their table, and Act 2 shows the long tense game. Ash's plan is to fleece the group of close to four thousand pounds, because he owes even more than that, immediately, to someone shadowy and possibly murderous. His cell phone keeps ringing. The others think he's in "investment."

Marber's blend of Hollywood clichés with metaphors for capitalism, and his fascination with poker as a revealer of character, is pure Mamet. Dealer's Choice is also a story of fragile men in a masculine, money-driven world, like American Buffalo. But the care Marber takes to color his cast, and tie each subplot into a neat conclusion, feels very English. The play is a work of good craftsmanship, not genius, but it suggests what Mamet could be like, and raises my hopes for Marber in spite of that TV-worthy piece of piffle he wrote afterward (Closer).

Graham Cowley fuels this production as Mugsy, the impudent, on-the-make loser who waits tables with a janitor's manners. "Mug" is actually slang for loser, especially one at a poker table, and watching Mugsy crawl and snivel his way downhill during the game is a big part of the fun. "Oi don't need protectin' from myself!" he hollers when Stephen tells him to quit playing. "Oi'm my own best friend! Oi'm on my side!" But of course he's not. John Mercer does an excellent Sweeney, the shambling cook who at least knows he shouldn't gamble, and Steve Marvel is a note-perfect, ashen Ash, in a silver vest and violet tie, piling up chips at the table. He looks like Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw -- neat small red beard, cool and deadly. "Dirty kitchen, clean restaurant," he notices on his way down to the game. "Someone's bluffing, eh?"

Other players do less well: Will Huddleston looks the part of a harried, sympathetic restaurant owner, but still seems awkward as Stephen. Kevin Heverin's accent goes in and out as Frankie (although Frankie's funny), and Chad Fisk stumbles occasionally as Carl. Segments of both acts also feel rough and unpaced, especially the interludes during the poker game, and the pseudo-clever scene-switching between restaurant and kitchen in Act 1. Overall, however, director Bill English does a fine job of shaping the dialogue into something fast-beating and organic.

English also designed the sets. A fully detailed kitchen, with a working gas stove and sports page clippings on the greasy walls -- never mind the convincing Italian restaurant next door -- is torn down between acts to make way for the stone-arched basement in which the boys play cards, surrounded by a few cases of beer, an old computer, and milk crates. It's a triumph of (literally) kitchen-sink realism, in an era when young American playwrights try to follow Tony Kushner into political fantasias. I prefer this kind of thing. Dealer's Choice shows the human consequences of winning and losing the money game, but only one brief exchange suggests it's about anything besides a bunch of guys who gamble.

"What do you think of Marx's theory of the inevitable decline of capitalism?" Carl jokingly asks Ash while they arrange their cards.

"Unlikely," says Ash. "Look at us."


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