By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
By sponsoring a play peopled solely by straight, white men - straight, white British men, no less - the Taper is gambling against the political allergies that currently govern the American stage. I, for one, am glad they took this risk, not out of nostalgia for testosterone theater, but because the Taper has done us such a service by introducing the West Coast to a promising new talent.
Robert Egan's sparkling production avoids the alluring cliches of gambling yarns by simply acknowledging the philosophical baggage that goes with the genre and emphasizing what is really important - the dilemma of a son who, in effect, has two fathers, and the weakness of a man who, unlike those around him, regards gambling as a mere sport, but whose love for his son leads him to decisions that neither a sportsman nor an addict would ever make.
There is something almost biblical about Dealer's Choice, possibly because of its father-son motif, and because its characters are constantly involved in making choices. There is also the barely muted love triangle of Stephen, Carl and Ash, which - like much in this play - Marber allows to breathe as a suggestion rather than bringing it out with a mallet and chisel. These notions might have enjoyed a little more definition, however, had Scott's Carl been a stronger fulcrum for the play's themes. He is an unfocused stage presence and makes only a perfunctory attempt at a British accent. Then again, his character is the least fully realized and has the most thankless lines - whoever plays Carl should be sent onstage with a catcher's mitt, since most of his lines are responses to (or setups for) the other characters' mots justes. Even when he finally gets to articulate his oedipal, rebellious embrace of compulsive betting, he is dryly one-upped:
I've played with real men for real money. Ash lost every penny he ever had one night.
The object of the game is to win.
Fortunately, Arndt's Stephen is a remarkably textured portrait of a middle-aged man whose every gesture and raised eyebrow tells a painful story; it is in the moments when he seems imprisoned by British reserve and cannot allow himself the emotional luxury to touch his son that we understand the depth of his affection for Carl.
His opposite is Carl's other "father," Ash, who, in his sharkskin suit and with his Mediterranean taste for cappuccino and biscotti, hardly seems British at all. Davis' portrayal of the veteran gambler is nothing less than mesmerizing; he's an iron statue come to life to demand his due in a voice that sounds as though it is echoing from a crypt. Not since George C. Scott bellowed, "You owe me money!" to Paul Newman in The Hustler have I heard such an authoritative cry of proprietary outrage. Davis' Ash is an empty man but not a hollow one, a man who's been burned from the inside out by what began as a passion and has evolved into a biological necessity.