THE GAMBLER , by Ronald Weihs, directed by Molly Thom (Beggarly/Artword/Alianak/Karastamatis/Ginger Cat). At Artword (75 Portland). Runs to February 19. $20-$30, some Sunday pwyc. 416-872-1212. See Continuing Listings. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
The Gambler spins the roulette wheel and, though it doesn't break the bank, this last production at Artword Theatre 's home on Portland comes up with a modest theatrical win.
Playwright Ronald Weihs has cleverly woven together the history of writer Fyodor Dostoevsky , who's wagered the copyright on all his works that he can finish a new novel in a short fixed period, and that very piece, The Gambler , whose narrator, Alexei, is betting-mad. Nice parallel, especially when Weihs intentionally blurs the line between Fyodor and Alexei, both played by David Ferry .
The novelist dictates his work to a young stenographer, Anna ( Claire Jenkins ), who encourages Dostoevsky when he sinks into despair or self-pity. Alexei has no such figure in his life; in fact, he's as besotted with the edgy, enigmatic Polina ( Irene Poole ) as he is with the whirling red-and-black wheel.
Set largely in the fictitious German spa town of Roulettenburg - guess its chief activity - the play has a slow first act in which we meet the characters, including the General, Polina's stepfather ( Karl Pruner ), the fortune-hunting Blanche (Poole), a money-hungry count ( Brett Christopher , who plays several other roles) and the stepfather's rich relative ( Jennifer Phipps ), whose death is anticipated by all the fictional characters.
The second half gains steam with a series of scenes at the roulette wheel, where we're let in on the insidious adrenaline shooting through several gambling addicts. Even here the script has some problems, with overly contemporary phrases and two-dimensional figures like the General and Blanche. There's also the problem of Molly Thom 's direction; too often the pacing needs fire, and the production begs for a more imaginative vision overall.
But the acting helps boost the show's quality. Jenkins's Anna, quiet at first, gradually warms up to be a defender, friend and more to her employer. Christopher's three roles are clearly individualized; the roulette croupier, even with few lines, is downright sinister.
The best scenes involve Alexei and Polina, and Ferry and Poole make them crackle. Here, there's a complex shifting of moods whose range includes subservience, pride, sulfurous passion, self-loathing and murderous hatred.
These two can't communicate how they really feel about the other - maybe even aren't aware of it themselves - but the resulting tension makes for the evening's strongest drama.