A playwright and a well-regarded translator and adapter of Moliere’s work, Freyda Thomas found inspiration for her The Gamester in Le Joueur, a late 17th century play by Jean-Francois Regnard.
A lesser talent but popular in his time, the wealthy Regnard was a man of leisure, and Moliere’s great admirer. As a seasoned gambler (and, by all accounts, a lucky one) he drew on his experiences at the gaming table when he wrote this, his most successful farce. It premiered in France in 1696, when gambling was not only immensely popular among the French monied classes, but de rigueur if one wanted to be thought of as cool or hip in the manner of the day.
Thomas, whose exposure to gambling stemmed from her relationship with her musician father and grandfather, both compulsive gamblers, appropriated Regnard’s skeletal plot and reworked it, discarding the dialogue and rewriting from scratch. The play was first produced in 2003. Though a couple of scenes might be cut or pared, the witty script sparkles, written in rhyming couplets, and dealing with the hazards and havoc wrought by addiction and the soulless vanity of the privileged upper-class.
The play’s central character is the youthful Valere (Rafael Cansino), a compulsive gambler who, when we meet him, has already frittered away a small fortune and who stands to lose everything, including his lady love Angelique (McKenzie Eckels), if he cannot conquer his obsession.
Typical of his era, Valere is waited upon by a long-suffering servant, Hector (James Schendel), who fields irate creditors for his master and suffers their abuse in his stead. Valere’s circle of acquaintances includes a sexually insatiable widow, Mme Securite (Elain Rinehart), who preys on young men when they’re available and older ones when they’re not. One smart cookie, Mme Securite is a keen observer of human behavior. When she’s not on the hunt, it is her commentary that wraps up the ditzy comings and goings of the various characters into one cynical but indulgent world view.
So it’s unfortunate that despite a facility with the language and an assured stage presence, Rinehart’s pivotal dragon lady is as contained and cerebral as she is when, with the proper display of passion, a female performer could tear up the stage. Likewise, Cansino, making his professional debut, is merely adequate as Valere, written to be a gentleman possessed of such virile charm that’s he’s coveted by several prepossessing women despite the deficiencies in his character.
Nonetheless, the current production is a respectably entertaining effort, under Jules Aaron’s direction. Performances that lend comic heft include Schendel as Valere’s harried servant, David Hunt Stafford as his stern but anxious Dad, and Maria Spassoff as Angelique’s envious older sister. Also notable is Eckels’s turn as the smart and special young lady who has captivated Valere’s heart. (Hers is a straight role, not a comic one, and she handles it adeptly and truthfully.)
Some of the production’s slapstick elements are a bit tentative this early in the run, but look to be on track for improvement. The wigs and designer Michele Young’s period costumes are great fun – the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and Tammi Merhab are also credited.