By Patrick Marber
Directed by Lissi Engvall
Hovey Players Theatre
Waltham, MA,   March 2001.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

When the Independent Reviewers of New England-- a group made up of freelance critics who review for weeklies, monthlies, radio stations, and Web sites such as AisleSay-- posted the nominations for the 2000 IRNE Awards, many theatre people were surprised to see that a slew of nominations went to Waltham's Hovey Players, and not a few people were were heard asking each other: Who are the Hovey Players?  Are they new? "They" aren't new: the Players' cozy but down at the heels  forty seat Abbot Memorial Theatre building across from the Waltham Public Library testifies to the community theatre's decades of shoestring production.  Never visited  by reviewers for the area's Big Papers, and with no advertising budget, Hovey's good work might have remained unknown to the IRNE reviewers, too, except for three attractive characteristics of their recent seasons.  Hovey has been first out of the box locally in mounting productions of  plays most theatre people have heard of but not yet had an opportunity to see, critical successes from Off Broadway or London; they have managed to attract to their tiny stage local actors who have previously been noticed doing exceptional work in larger venues; and something in their rehearsal process melds their mix-and-match cast into a real Company.  Two of the four "Best Ensemble 2000" nominations for Small Theatres went to Hovey:, and this production of Patrick Marber's majorly metaphorical script about a poker game, "Dealer's Choice", looks like a strong contender for the IRNEs in 2001.

The first challenge presented by Marber's script and successfully dealt with is the set.  "Dealer's Choice" takes place in the kitchen, dining room, and dingy basement poker parlor of a middling fashionable London restaurant.  Designer Anthony Mendino fit all this onto a stage maybe 8' by 18', and it all worked; meal prep, service, and all.  Next, director Lissi Engvall's cast has to deal with the class-stratified London dialect in which Marber's script is written  The words are colorful, the cast is comfortable with them, and they successfully locate themselves along a pecking order established by birth but subject to revision by verbal dexterity or prowess at the poker table.  On the bottom are the mugs, the losers.  Jason Yaitanes'  Mugsy is stuck with the loser's label for a nickname, and frantic to prove that it's a joke. Mugsy is a good waiter and a good friend, but hell bent on goals he hasn't a 100 to 1 shot at making -- he's thinks going to win big at poker and open his own posh restaurant. The big joke's on him, and it isn't really funny-- but there are hundreds of little jokes generated as the evening works its way toward a conclusion, and most of those banterings and teasings and awkward attempts at manipulation are very funny. It's a real pleasure to watch Yaitanes' wholehearted commitment to this character, all tics and swagger.

Sweeney (Owen Donovan Yarde), the cook, has more modest goals. He'd like to make ends meet and have enough left over to treat his kid to an outing when her mother sends her to visit him on a Sunday. Yarde's Sweeney is so lovable, his estimate of his own card playing and career planning skills so realistic, that the poor bloke really ought to be able to win through   With one of the usual  poker players absent it should be easy for Sweeney to stick to his resolution. to walk away,  He knows that playing poker in the restaurant basement with the boss is a losing strategy for everybody except Frankie (John Carozza), a slick operator who is confident that his poker winnings are a sign that the time has come for him to quit the restaurant and head for Vegas and the big time. Sweeney and Mugsy aren't going anywhere so long as they are in debt to Steven (Michael Tonner), their employer, and working off the debt by doing unpaid overtime.

Steven has layers, and Tonner peels them away for us.  There's the classy, competent businessman, superior not only to all his underlings but to his own entrepreneurial life style and his recreational gambling. Then there's the benevolent father figure, ever ready to advance a loan or dispense good advice.  Under this is the control freak, the manipulative tyrant who preys on  the fears and weaknesses of the men around him.  All this is still just surface, though.  Beneath it is dark matter, and if the surface breaks ....  Meanwhile, Steven  has hooked his employees, and he has also hooked his son Carl, (Phil Anderson).  The kid, who lives with his divorced mother,  comes to his father's Saturday night game for action, and has had to come to him for money to pay off debts from other gambling too.  Control is the name of this game, and the kid knows it.  He doesn't see any reason he should play by his Dad's house rules.  Carl introduces his mentor Ash (Jerry Bisantz) , a professional gambler, to his father as one of his teachers from school who might like to sit in on the family game, and with Bisantz' formidable Ash at the table the stakes are suddenly higher than any of the players can afford.  Producing an ambitious show like "Dealer's Choice" was a high stakes game for Hovey, too-- but one in which everyone concerned came out a winner.