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Bet Noir

Gambling, at least as it exists in literature, is not just some juicy existential trope; it's a veritable watermelon of a metaphor. The gambler has long been regarded as a walking system of ethical self-definition, a person living for the moment and only in the present, an homme d'engage who is identified by the decisions he makes at a green-baize table and whose stoic refusal to bemoan the whims of luck is a heroic rejection of bad faith. Young British playwright Patrick Marber seems to know all this, and indeed has incorporated such themes into his Dealer's Choice. At the same time, he has written a provocative play about other things.

The setting is Sunday night at a London restaurant that, from all we can infer, is neither a smash nor a failure, neither posh rendezvous nor bog hole. Instead, it is the labor of love of a fastidious businessman named Stephen (Denis Arndt), the kind of lower-middle-class entrepreneur breathed into existence 20 years ago by Maggie Thatcher's cult of free enterprise. He's also the type of man who occasionally betrays a bit of learning in conversation only to spoil the moment by lording his erudition over the help.

If the restaurant is his home away from home, then its cooks and waiters are his surrogate children, although Stephen's real son, Carl (Adam Scott), is never far away - since Carl is a luckless gambling addict who must touch Dad up for the frequent bailout. Everyone in this story is a gambler, a fact underlined by the compul-sive coin-tossing that enlivens the restaurant's routine prior to the men's weekly poker game.

Stephen knows that his son has gotten out of his depth wagering, but he has no idea just how far above Carl's head the water line laps. He eventually finds out, of course, and his education during the play's harrowing marathon poker match encompasses not only the son's weaknesses, but the father's as well.

Leading up to this game are hilarious moments of bruising repartee played out between Stephen and his staff, and among the staff members themselves. There's Sweeney (Daragh O'Malley), a divorce eagerly anticipating a weekend with his 5-year-old daughter; the skirt-chasing Frankie (Dan Hildebrand), who lives with Sweeney; and Mugsy (Patrick Kerr), the clownish heart of the group, an irrepressible loser with a taste for loud shirts and even more deafening neckties.

Despite his low position in life, Mugsy does not lack for ambition; he schemes with Carl to borrow enough money from Stephen to set up their own restaurant in the East End, in what is presently a public lavatory on the Mile End Road. When co-workers ridicule his dream, Mugsy is defiant. "Yes, it's a toilet. Who cares?" he replies to Sweeney's taunts. "Certainly not lovers of haute cuisine," Sweeney needles. "They travel the world looking for the elusive toilet-turned-restaurant." Nor can Frankie resist heaping scorn on Mugsy: "When I walk past, say . . . a graveyard . . . I can't see it as anything other than a graveyard. You see a graveyard and think . . . casino. That's the difference between us, Mugs: vision."

But Mugsy will not be denied his East End mirage:

MUGSY
They laughed at the man who invented the wheel.

SWEENEY
Who was that, then?

MUGSY
I don't know, Mr. fucking Wheel.

SWEENEY
Friend of Mr. Fire, was he?

Marber's rather simple story is mortared together with such moments of sardonic cruelty, capturing a laconic British working class acutely aware of the grave that awaits most dreams. If there is a weakness in Marber's script, it is these longish scenes involving Mugsy (which are, paradoxically, among the play's chief comic strengths). Although the kitchen patois often drifts into sitcom dialogue, the bigger problem is that there is simply too much of Mugsy. Marber and actor Kerr are no fools; they both know that this character, with his Little Guy optimism and imperfect command of the language, is a crowd pleaser. Kerr's performance was certainly catnip to the Taper house on press night, but his extended stage time amounts to audience pandering on Marber's part, and Kerr's appetite for scenery becomes an eating disorder before too long.

This is a quibble, though, for eventually the play does move on to the people it's really about, and accomplishes this with playful menace as Marber introduces a finicky restaurant diner named Ash (Daniel Davis), who turns out to be Carl's mentor and sponsor in the ruinous world of high-stakes gambling. Ash hasn't come here for the steak tartare, but to collect *4,000 Carl owes him. Stephen's black-sheep son can only bleat for mercy until he persuades Ash - who himself is facing a pay-up-or-else deadline - to join the restaurant's Sunday-night poker game to recoup his debt.

By Act 2, David Jenkins' nurturing restaurant set has become a basement house of games, the kind of homey den that the predatory Ash probably cut his teeth in many years ago. It is here that the upstairs bonhomie sours as the cooks get fried under Stephen's patronizing gaze and Ash's murderous skill, and it is where Mugsy's jokes bounce off the gruff Ash, an unblinking man who wears his poker face as though it has been acid-etched onto his features. I won't reveal the outcome of the game, other than to say that it's refreshing to watch a play about money and passion whose prop list doesn't include a gun.

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:

CARL
I've played with real men for real money. Ash lost every penny he ever had one night.

STEPHEN
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.


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