2011, "Friday Night Rites", Karin Lai, The Flying Inkpot website, 1 October 2011, Singapore, online.
There are no heroes in Patrick Marber's poker-centric comedy. There are no winners either - only losers. The action takes place over the course of a single Friday night. Stephen (Adrian Pang) is closing his restaurant business in order to hold his weekly poker game. Sweeney (Daniel Jenkins), his chef, initially refuses to play, claiming that he needs his money and rest in order to take his daughter out for a day of fun the next morning. He is eventually persuaded, however, by his fellow staff members Frankie (Keagan Kang) and Mugsy (Andy Tear) to join in. In the meantime, Stephen's son, Carl (Julian Low), having failed to borrow money from his father, suddenly introduces a new player to his father's Friday night game. He claims the man is his former teacher in school, but it is obvious that Ash (Daniel York) is anything but.
As the play unfolds it becomes clear that there are stakes other than those on the poker table in play here, and as Marber's play draws to a close, we see that even the ostensible winners in this game are not winners at all. Mugsy leaves the table up by £7, but only because Stephen took pity on him and lied about his final hand. As for Stephen, he manages to beat Ash – who is in reality a professional poker player – and claim the pot of £4,000; yet, he gambles it all on a toss of a coin to help his son, whom he can barely connect with outside of their time playing poker together. And Ash, for all his claims of professionalism, admits to Stephen that even he cannot know for sure whether he is the mug (or idiot) at the far more professional table he is leaving them to join.
For a Singaporean audience still coming to grips with the spectre of compulsive gambling raised by the presence of our two new casinos, Marber's play makes for a compelling argument that gambling can never be just a part of one's life – it is a way of living. His characters do not just live to gamble every Friday night: they gamble every day, both in and with with their own lives, on the off-chance that just around the corner their luck is going to change. We see this in Carl, who is trying to make up for his lack of success by trying to become a professional poker player but falling into debt with Ash instead. We see it in Frankie, who convinces himself on the basis of his Friday night wins that he can become a professional player in Las Vegas. We also see it in Mugsy, who desperately tries to convince Stephen to invest in his idea for a restaurant located in a former public toilet. Circumstances force them to abandon these pipe dreams, but the characters never stop coming up with more, building castles on the shakiest of foundations.
The secret to PANGDEMONIUM!'s production is solid acting and excellent production values. It is hard to say too much about the set: it is simply gorgeous. Detailed, rich and solid (unlike the slightly flimsy set that was deployed in last year's production of Closer), it features a split kitchen / restaurant that transforms over the space of the interval into the restaurant's basement. The platform that seemed merely decorative in the first act in fact rotates, allowing the audience to focus on different characters as the game progresses.
However, it is the acting that holds this oft-times rambunctious play together. It struck me that each actor was cast in precisely the perfect role for him. For the first time in my life, I found myself actually convinced by a character played by Daniel York. I always found it incongruous that a man with such a naturally grim countenance was more often than not cast in the role of a hapless participant in comedic farce. Here, however, it suited his role as an unfeeling and unforgiving professional poker player. I also enjoyed Keagan Kang's slightly Italian-esque and smooth turn as Frankie. The impression given is that of "fit": each actor seems to have discovered a part of their characters in themselves and vice versa. The result is a joy to watch.
But if we are to mention a particular actor who shines, then there is no doubt that Tear steals the show completely with the assistance of some wonderfully Alan Ackybourne-esque moment of farce (for instance, when the hapless Mugsy is caught running between two arguments taking place on both sides of the split stage and, having been told to get out, takes refuge in the basement insisting that, "This is me, f***ing off!") and other randomly ridiculous pronouncements (his over-the-top repetitive shouts of "D-monds!"). Tear had the audience in stitches and undeniably shone in this cast of talented comedic actors.
Dealer's Choice is a fun play. It is also, I think, a very male play. Certainly, I believe more men saw bits of themselves in each of the characters than did the women in the audience. Personally, I am still not convinced by Marber's plays. Having watched both Dealer's Choice and Closer, I still find that apart from a few comedic scenes and character vignettes, I find difficulty in connecting to his characters and themes. But there is no denying that Dealer's Choice presents an snapshot of humanity that is full of wit, hilarity and bittersweet sympathy for the kind of men who are driven to find their kicks in life staring at cards into the wee hours of the morning. It also does not fail to entertain and perhaps that, in the case of this production, is all that is really needed.