Guys'night in

Patrick Marber's ingenious new play gets dealt a winning hand.

THE SETTING OF Patrick Marber's play, Dealer's Choice, is a London restaurant, but since this is a play about poker, there's no question that its imaginative territory is as American as baseball and apple pie. (Indeed, one of the players in the regular poker game, Frankie, makes this explicit by confessing his secret dream of escaping to the life of a professional gambler in Las Vegas.) Set on the Sunday evening of the weekly poker game, it introduces us to the owner and staff of a small restaurant as they argue, bicker, and prepare for the entertainment. There are a couple of difficulties that have to be overcome to guarantee five players at the table. One of the staff has gone off for a funeral, so there's a lot of pressure for Sweeney (Timothy Hyland) to stay in for the game despite his commitment to take his 5-year-old daughter for a day out the next morning. Then there's the ongoing tension between restaurant owner Stephen (Colby Chester) and his son Carl (Daniel J. Chercover). Relations between the two men have deteriorated to the point where the weekly game is the only time they see each other, and when Stephen refuses Carl a substantial loan, his son decides not to play, as he claims not to have the 100 required as a stake.

Dealer's Choice

Empty Space Theater, ends May 9

In reality, however, Carl's gotten himself into a serious mess with professional gambler Ash (Mikel MacDonald), a sharp-suited fellow to whom he owes 4,000. MacDonald, thin and spare as a switchblade, is entirely convincing as someone who's dry, dangerous, and altogether a nasty piece of work. Unable to pry the money loose from his father, Carl talks Ash into playing in the game, with the understanding that the pro will inevitably walk away with something like the money he's owed.

While Carl's problems are the most pressing, we're given an insight into what winning in the game would mean to each of the players—from the dream of poor dim Mugsy (Ian Bell) to open a restaurant in what, unfortunately, is currently a public lavatory, to Frankie's dream of a high-rolling Vegas future, to the dream of Sweeney to give his daughter something significant. Only Stephen's motives remain unclear, but from the computer program he's got set up that charts each and every game for the past eight years, it's easy to guess that his goals are more long-term. If nothing else, he wants his son to learn something from the game—something of discipline, responsibility, and respect for his father.

ROD PILLOUD IS BLESSED with an exceptionally strong ensemble of local actors, including Colby Chester (making his Seattle stage debut), who brings an authentic simmer to Stephen, the strategically closed restaurant owner. Pilloud's direction is generally clear and tactically intelligent, though some of the comedy in the first half could be tighter. With Ian Bell as Mugsy, there's no question that this will eventually happen. It's a real pleasure to see Bell finally in a dramatic role that allows him the same range he's been showing for years now with his colleagues in the sketch comedy troupe Bald Face Lie. He's masterful at portraying the exuberant ignorance of Mugsy, mixing metaphors with the manic industry of a berserk blender, and in thrall to his outsized dream of a restaurant of his own at the same time he can't tell a rayon tie from a silk one. But Bell also is able to show us that there's a real person under all of the cloddishness, as when, humiliated and left alone for a moment, Mugsy bursts into helpless tears before re-armoring himself in his florid lucky poker shirt. Of the many great comic actors in Seattle, perhaps only Bell could pull off such a delicate moment.

Marber's got a great ear for the sort of incisive digging that characterizes men among men, and much of the dialogue is sharply funny. (My favorite one-liner is a stern reprimand from Frankie to Mugsy: "Evolve.") He's been called a "young British Mamet," and there is something about his fascination with the business of men, the testosterone that fuels the simplest social interchange, that makes the comparison apt. But the contrasts are actually more telling. In Mamet's vision, the average white male is fascinating precisely because he's going crazy. The social structures that kept him in power for so long are crumbling all about him, and his inability to live up to his own fantasies (of riches in Glengarry Glen Ross, of sex in Sexual Perversity in Chicago, or even of the professional slick heist in American Buffalo) results in a despairing rage. Marber's male-only community, by contrast, is clearly an anomaly, a weekly excuse for the boys to pull up the ladder of their clubhouse and pretend that complications like Sweeney's daughter don't exist. It's as much a criticism of male society as it is a celebration of it, and is an incredibly impressive premiere from a young writer who promises to be a major addition to the theater.

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