Second Helpings

Two reheated dishes are tangier the second time around.

The Gin Game / Eating Raoul The Gin Game
The Civic, 3130 Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights. Through November 25, 6216-521-2540

Eating Raoul
Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood. Through December 1, 216-321-2930

Some couples migrate to Phoenix; the Silvers become phoenixes.
Some couples migrate to Phoenix; the Silvers become phoenixes.
Theater, as opposed to film, is about the pleasure of memory; it's a sand castle, created inevitably to be washed out with the tide. Yet two rare second chances are provided in The Gin Game and Eating Raoul, reruns of productions that respectively galvanized and decadently tickled local theater connoisseurs in their previous incarnations. On second viewing, both have lost some of their spontaneity and surprise, but have been honed for a far more potent kick.

If Cleveland has produced any enduring legacies besides the Sam Sheppard murder case, it is the reign of Dorothy and Reuben Silver in the theatrical arts. The much-lauded acting couple has come to symbolize the virtues eulogized in books chronicling the "greatest generation." Together, they form a battered fortress upholding the Old Testament dignity of marriage. Dorothy is the ever-astringent, ever-knowing sage, exuding sarcasm as a tonic. Reuben, the avuncular blusterer, the perennial round little shopkeeper fighting for his dignity, is as cozily familiar as a favorite blanket. Even at their most rancorous -- as they are in Ensemble Theatre's revival of The Gin Game -- seeing them together, working in perfect synchronization, is an affirmation of the dignity of male and female growing old together.

The Gin Game is to Medicaid-age acting couples what Annie is to pubescent Mermans in the making -- an ideal showcase. In spite of its nihilism and despairing picture of life hovering at the exit doors, it has managed to canvass the theater circuit, pull down a Pulitzer Prize, and become an annuity to its Broadway originators, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.

Onetime playwright D.L. Coburn found a universal metaphor: a nursing home as a purgatory where two inmates play out their damnation in a card game. We find Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin on the veranda of a decrepit old-age home, divorced and alienated from friends and family. At first, they find solace in each other's company and in a series of gin games, lifting them out of their torpor. Soon, his disheveled bathrobe and her frowsy shower cap give way to a snazzy cardigan and a prim dress. Yet gradually, these games, which Fonsia keeps mysteriously winning, become a dangerous reenactment of their lifelong self-destructiveness. His blind rages, brought on by losing, cause him to relinquish control and smash the furniture, just as he smashed his family business and marriage. Her primness, subtle digs, and need to come out on top lead to the same needling that drove her husband to drink and the same ornery spite that made her donate her house to the church to keep it out of the hands of her son.

The constant alteration between their growing mutual dependence and the deadly lacerations that they inflict will invariably lead to combustion. It is a well-observed, coldly schematic play with a reptilian fascination.

Essaying the same role seven years later, the Silvers have purged their performances of all affectation. Gone is the sly one-upmanship and comic shtick. With eyes hollowed by decades of pain and frustration, encased in the parchment-like skin of their faces, they have taken on the bleak purity of Beckett's rueful archetypes. When Fonsia gloats about the revenge she took on her son, she hisses, "I fixed his wagon!" with an arctic chill. When Weller hears her spearing declaration of "Gin!" we can almost hear his spirit snap. He staggers off the stage like Willie Loman going to take the gas pipe. The performers burst into flame like two phoenixes.

As with all forces of nature, this couple is impossible to control, so director Lucia Colombi is to be lauded for so shrewdly harnessing their attributes to illuminate her theater.

In the same playful, polyester spirit as Little Shop of Horrors, Eating Raoul is a quick-witted musical reinvention of a quirky black film comedy. Anyone back in 1983 who fancied himself a maven of art-house camp will recall the titters as the bodies mounted in Paul Bartlet's screwball take on swinging and homicide in the L.A. suburbs. This work, built on a pedestal of artifice, was ripe for that extra layer of stylization supplied in musical theater.

The resulting mini-musical enhances the naughtiness of the original. The show's fleet 90 minutes bring to mind one of those swirling Hawaiian pupu platters, loaded with tasty oddities ranging from Sondheim's urban paranoia to Bye Bye Birdie's hip-swinging rock and roll pastiches.

Scott Spence, as he did a year and a half ago, has managed to capture almost the same cast of energized extroverts, who wouldn't blush to do a dominatrix Tupperware party on Public Square. Wendell McDowell, a 300-pound black man in a Ginger Rogers wig and gown, offers the most undiluted deviant joy since Divine passed on to that great drag bar in the sky. As the eponymous seducer, Gustavo E. Urdaneta, pumped up to Chippendale proportions, pulls off the death-defying comic stunt of doing Desi Arnaz as Conrad Birdie in a painted leopard jumpsuit.

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