"Are you the new girl?" James Earl Jones, 84, asks Cicely Tyson, 90, when they first cross paths on the front porch of a shabby assisted-living facility where both have been unceremoniously dumped. He sees himself as a card shark who can show this impressionable prey the intricacies of gin rummy. Put him down for faulty vision.
There are lots of gin games in The Gin Game, which began its third Broadway visit Oct. 14 at the Golden Theatre, and, by the time the short-fused, exasperated Jones wins one from his brand-new star pupil-with-an-advanced-degree-of-beginning's-luck, it's somewhere in the second act and he suspects she threw the game out of pity. They press on, with him keeping a watchful lookout for Divine Intervention.
Only icons need — and do — apply for this Pulitzer Prize winner. Hume Cronyn and wife Jessica Tandy were the first to shut up and deal in 1977, deftly coaxed to Tony nominations by the equally nominated Mike Nichols. Julie Harris won her tenth and final Tony nomination for the play's 20th anniversary revival, and Charles Durning won the Drama League's Distinguished Performance Award. Now, following that unbroken line of excellence, is the crème de la crème of African-American actors.
It's the same the world over, averred the play's author, D. L. ("Don") Coburn. "I've been blessed with that, it's true — not only here in the United States but in other countries," he beamed. "It seems like premiere actors come out for this play."
Although the comic premise of a seasoned gambler being soundly trounced by a naïve novice echoes the classic card game between Billie Dawn and Harry Brock in Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, Coburn claimed no kinship. "The inspiration for my play is completely devoid of that sort of thing. It came from a different direction."
But, mysteriously, he declined to say exactly where. "That I can't answer for you. I never share that specific nascent point about what drove me to write it. When I decided to write it, I knew what I was going to write. I knew what the play was going to be about. I knew the rhythms of it when I wrote it, and I knew where I was going."
Having African-American actors in the leads for the first time only underlined the play's humanity, he felt. "It's always a different play with a different cast and a different director. I can amend that: It's not exactly a different play. It's the same play, done quite differently in some areas of interpretation. And the play holds up under those changes. There's an art to this play. The humor and the laughter, no matter how you do that, seem to remain deep into the second act. There were times tonight when I did have the experience that half the audience is laughing and the other half is trying to shush them down because they are seeing the dark side."
The human comedy is the play's best card, but its somber side is never far away. "In our production," said Jones, "there's a danger in the fun people are having — serious danger. You could laugh so hard you could miss something. It's really not funny, but there's nothing we can do about it except do our roles, so I hope it doesn't happen."
Foglia could see the role was in Jones' wheelhouse and is helping him play the whole hand. "I've never seen the play, and I chose not to watch the TV movie the Cronyns did. As I told Don, the author, 'I need to treat it like a play that's never been done.'
"In the original version of the play — I know because I discussed it with the author — James Earl's character just kinda wandered off stage, sorta beaten down, to become one more of those 'glassy-eyed bastards' in the house. We were working on a very different version where this guy would probably be removed from the home and taken to an asylum for breaking down a door and having violent outbursts."
Almost a half-century has passed since Jones and Tyson shared a Broadway stage — they put in 20 performances of A Hand Is on the Gate in 1966 — and, interestingly, their lighting designer was Jules Fisher, who's doing those honors for them now.
When you have a cast with a collective age of 174, Foglia noted, you don't crack a whip. "I sat down the first day, and they said, 'What's the schedule going to be like?' And I said, 'This is the schedule: When we're hungry, we eat. When we're tired, we go home. It's just the two of you.' I was very conscious of conserving their energy.
"They were always trying to find their characters, and this took a long time for both of them. I think they struggled with who these people were. They really didn't find it till the last minute — Cicely especially. She's talked about it. She gave interviews in the last week of rehearsals, saying, 'I have no idea who this woman is.' She works in a really methodical, organic way, and then all the work just comes together."
It was a tough row to hoe, Tyson admitted. "I found her a intricate kind of character with different facets to her personality. There were moments I thought I had her. Then, in two seconds she was gone. It was hard for me to get a hold on her — a hook."
A trip to Broadway so soon after The Trip to Bountiful was not on her agenda. "I didn't expect this one so soon. I never expected to come back in two years. I thought, 'Maybe if I got a piece I found inviting and exciting enough I would come back in three or four years.' I never expected to come back so soon. But I've been blessed."
Given her history with Jones and having him on board was her the nudge she needed, " but it was no real guarantee that it's going to work out. I know him. We've worked together six different times. I know his work. I know him as a human being. I enjoy being in his company, and I certainly enjoy the exchange as artists."
Folgia is pleased with what he has wrought: "What's so wonderful about The Gin Game — and why I think it's endured — is because it's one of the few plays where old people are the focus — their problems, their concerns, their sadnesses, their humor.
"Everything is center stage. They're not somebody's grandmother or aunt or uncle. They're not a satellite around everyone else. We all have to deal with what it means. That's why this play is important. Like James Earl said the other day, 'We're all gonna die, but, before that, we get older and older and older and older and... '"