In keeping with what appears to be a growing trend among local theater companies, Kansas City Actors Theatre has opened its fall season before the end of summer.
“The Gin Game,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama directed by Dennis D. Hennessy and featuring Victor Raider-Wexler and Marilyn Lynch, began previews Wednesday night at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station.
Hennessy, a co-owner of the New Theatre Restaurant, has an association with KCAT that began in 2004, when he staged “Dinner With Friends” for the company. The New Theatre is, of course, all about entertainment. KCAT offers Hennessy the opportunity to stage shows a bit darker than the comedies and musicals that attract enthusiastic audiences to the Overland Park dinner theater.
D. L. Coburn’s play depicts two residents of a nursing home. Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey strike up a friendship and Weller offers to teach Fonsia how to play gin rummy, which she learns quickly. Fonsia, in fact, turns out be adept at the game, and Weller becomes increasingly frustrated by her continual winning. Eventually emotions fray, and their conversations become combative as superficial niceties give way to brutal criticisms.
The play was first staged in 1976 in Los Angeles in a production directed by Kip Niven, now a respected Kansas City-based actor. The following year it opened on Broadway with legendary husband-and-wife team Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in a heralded production staged by Mike Nichols.
Later it was adapted for television twice, once with Cronyn and Tandy and later with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore.
“I’ve seen it a couple of times, and I’ve always liked the play,” Hennessy said. “It tends to be a very funny play as it begins … and as it progresses it becomes darker and more serious. And the way it ends is very surprising.”
Raider-Wexler has delivered a succession of dramatic performances on local stages and has become associated with KCAT by virtue of his work in the company’s productions of “The Real Inspector Hound,” “The Mousetrap,” “The Seafarer” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.” But he has also delivered memorable comic performances in shows at the New Theatre, including “Harvey,” which Hennessy directed.
“I probably wouldn’t have done this show if Victor had not been available,” Hennessy said.
Lynch has become virtually a resident star at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, thanks to a series of dramatic and comic roles in a diverse group of shows, including “Three Tall Women,” “Lost in Yonkers” and “Night of the Iguana.” In the 2013 Kansas City Fringe Festival, she and Robert Gibby Brand appeared in two related one-acts under the collective title of “Bernice/ Butterfly.” The show was one of the highlights of the festival.
“I think Marilyn is terrific,” Hennessy said. “I’m very pleased with her.”
A series of gin games is integral to the action of Coburn’s play, and Hennessy said that has proven to be the most challenging aspect of the show. The fact that he’s a fan of the game helped. But he had to work it all out with a deck of cards on his own.
“This is my 101st show to direct in my 45 years of directing, and it’s the most difficult show I’ve done because of the card-playing,” he said. “It’s not written in the script where the plays come … and I had to sit in my kitchen for four weeks and I really had to choreograph all those moves, because they did have to play the game of gin throughout the piece.
“And these actors have had a hell of a time memorizing their lines with the moves in the game. We’re lucky we had four weeks of rehearsals.”
Hennessy said he read an account of Coburn attending an early performance of the play and being dismayed that the audience found it so comical. He had intended to write a serious play. Hennessy said it definitely packs a dramatic punch, but the humor is naturally woven into the dialogue.
“I’ve always wanted to do it because of the humor and then the drama at the end of the piece,” he said.
For years Hennessy and his partner at the New Theatre, Richard Carrothers, have toyed with the notion of opening a small theater to do relatively edgy material, and Hennessy said he hasn’t given up on the idea. Meanwhile, KCAT is offering him a way to scratch that itch.
According to KCAT, the show is selling well and for two very good reasons: Hennessy said he sent notices to all of the New Theatre subscribers, and he asked Karen Paisley, artistic director of the MET, to do the same to reach Lynch’s fan base.
Rep announces “Sunday in the Park” leads
Claybourne Elder returns to the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s stage in the company’s opening show of the season, “Sunday in the Park With George.” Artistic director Eric Rosen is directing the Stephen Sondheim musical, which runs Sept. 11-Oct. 4 in the Atkins Auditorium at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The first half of the show focuses on the struggles of painter Georges Seurat to finish his pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Act 2 focuses on Seurat’s fictional grandson, an artist struggling to find his voice.
Elder received positive reviews last year when he played Georges in a 2014 production at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. Joining him as Dot, his model and muse, will be Broadway veteran Sara Jean Ford.
Elder has been in Rep productions of “Pippin,” “Cabaret” and “Into the Woods.”