First Nighter: James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson Play 'The Gin Game'; Oren Safdie's Unseemly 'Unseamly'

10/14/2015 11:57 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2016

If you think you're about to hear anything critical of the two old pros James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in director Leonard Foglia's revival of D. L. Coburn's 1977 comedy, The Gin Game, at the Golden Theatre, you better think again. As two lonely residents at a home for the aged who find comfort playing cards with each other in a rundown backyard, they're well nigh perfect -- which is what you already knew they would be.

It may be overstating it to say the characters they play both find comfort in the gin game. Tyson's Fonsia Dorsey is very happy with the cards she dealt, because she's the one declaring "Gin" just about every time, whereas Jones's Weller Martin, the supposed expert at the game, never appears to have a fighting chance against her.

His card-playing prowess, only worsening as the two acts march on, is, of course what Fonsia and Weller discuss repeatedly, but they get around to other subjects as well. One topic is their families, who are either literal or figurative distances from them. The goings-on at the home is another ready topic, and when one of the dances underway inside moves them, they even dance. Needless to say, that's a big audience-delighting development.

Weller, who can be loud and prone to anger when losing, has a habit of swearing. It's a character trait Fonsia dislikes. So Coburn goes for laughs by eventually having her lose control of her tongue. Putting four-letter obscenities into the mouths of octogenarians -- okay, nonagenarian in Tyson's case -- is a cheap trick but it works.

This is the third time the crowd-pleaser has adorned Broadway -- Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronin, Julie Harris and Charles Durning preceded the current stars -- and the play is no worse for wear. Whether it was ever a flawless piece of writing is less certain. It does have a second-act problem, which is that Coburn knows what to do with Fonsia and Weller up to a point and then doesn't reckon how to take them further. By the time the second act ends, it's become too much a repetition of the first.

In addition to Jones and Tyson, who do have the advantage of sitting for much of their on-stage time, there's another truly standout production feature. It's Riccardo Hernandez's set. Along with a handy card table and a couple of chairs for the card players to occupy, he's piled any number of discarded wheelchairs and walkers against the upstage wall.

Those are a constant reminder that though they were once used, their owners are no longer around. Somehow keeping death as a constant adds vitality to the energetic Jones and Tyson. Fonsia and Weller may not have that much longer to enjoy their gin game, but as played by Jones and Tyson, the pair is far from adding any discarded device to Hernandez's stack.
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Sexual harassment has been a topic of conversation for some time, but whether Oren Safdie's Unseamly, at Urban Stages, adds anything to the welter of current examinations is questionable.

In a play that slowly disintegrates into hysteria, Malina (Gizel Jimenez) has come to lawyer Adam (Tommy Schrider) in hopes he will convince his firm to take on her harassment case against Standard apparel company CEO Ira (Jonathan Silver), whose sometimes thoughtful and sometimes careless treatment of employees is well known. (Does Safdie have former American Apparel head honcho Dov Charney in mind as a model for Ira? Most likely.)

Initially, Adam listens to the lithe and sensual Malina objectively, attempting while he takes notes to have her describe incidents that would hold up in court as undeniable instances of harassment. As she tells her tales of being involved with Ira over an eight-month period, Adam hears nothing he finds solid evidence and initially dismisses her. But as Malina recounts her first interview with Ira, the shameless womanizer materializes, and while Adam continues taking notes on the sides of Brian Dudkiewicz's clean-walled set, Ira and Malina reenact their past.

As they do, Unseamly slowly changes from a play about sexual harassment into a soft porn charade with sexual harassment as its handy peg. The more Malina, in time changing into a black lace outfit, shakes her booty even as Ira shakes his -- there's even a Malina-Ira dance break that Jimenez choreographed -- the more lawyer Adam loses his objectivity and begins to get drawn into behavior less reflective of a professional keeping his law firm uppermost in his mind. Eventually, he shows signs of being as sexually compulsive as Ira, even down to talking at Ira's breakneck speed.

As the audience discovers nothing in Malina's saga that shows her as being anything but complicit in her interactions with Ira, Unseamly takes on the appearance of an overwrought screed about all men being helplessly licentious where women, no matter how agreeable they may or may not be, are concerned. The unpleasant irony is that Unseamly ends up exploiting exactly what it pretends to be exposing.

One thing definitely true of Unseamly is that the non-stop hyperactivity demands three actors speaking and moving indefatigably. As directed by Sarah C Carlsen, Jimenez, Schrider and Silver are up for every bit of that.