Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz is the musical accompaniment for a dance sequence in D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game.” I contend that (1) the use of this specific song is key to the dance scene, which itself, though not part of the original script, exponentially enhances the drama and pathos of the play and serves as catalyst for the audience’s investment in the fate of the characters and, by the way, (2) the scene’s full potential is not realized because of the manner in which the music is implemented in the orthodox, playwright-sanctioned production of the play.1
No doubt Mr. Coburn and the theatrical world are breathless in anticipation of this revelation.
But they will have to wait a bit. Because “The Gin Game” appears to fall into the category of Classic, Frequently Produced American Plays With High Name Recognition About Which Few People Know A Darn Thing, it seems the better part of valor to establish rather than assume a common database of basic knowledge about this work prior to an elaboration of my hypothesis; happily, this information and, I trust, its acquisition are interesting and entertaining.
The Gin Game
Written in 1976 by D.L. Coburn, “The Gin Game” is a two-act, Pulitzer Prize winning play that first appeared on Broadway in 1977 starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn and directed by Mike Nichols. In 1997, Charles Durning and Julie Harris appeared in a Charles Nelson Reilly directed Broadway revival of the play. In 1999, a major production of “The Gin Game” in London featured Joss Ackland and Dorothy Tutin. Since its first Broadway production, “The Gin Game” has been a stalwart in the repertoire of amateur and professional theater groups and has been produced extensively in the U.S. and scores of other countries.
The cast consists of two characters, Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin, who are residents of Bentley, a ramshackle nursing home for the elderly.
Initially, Fonsia appears to be the epitome of the nice old lady who lives down the street and bakes cookies for the neighborhood children, but as the play unwinds she is revealed to be unexpectedly tough, embittered, and psychologically dangerous to herself and others.
Shortly after Fonsia arrives at the home, she meets Weller, a sardonic, self-important, and temperamental man who invites her to play gin, teaching her the rudiments of the game at which he professes great proficiency, noting that he is “one of the best damn Gin players you’ll ever see.”
The play’s structure is less a traditional linear plot than a series of vignettes staged around seventeen hands of gin Fonsia and Weller play over three consecutive Sundays (Sundays are “Visitors Days,” a particularly painful appellation since Fonsia and Weller are drawn together largely because neither ever has a visitor).
The gin games serve as a mechanism for disclosing the important elements of Fonsia’s and Weller’s lives, but this presentation of life events and psychological elements is not passive; it is instead intimately, destructively interactive, arming each player with the weapons to breach the others defensive facade and expose the weaknesses lying just below the surface, humiliate and traumatize the opponent, and ultimately prevent any connection between them other than reciprocal horror.
The card games, despite sporadic comic turns (e.g., during one hand, Fonsia forgets the card stuck between her lips), are increasingly tense affairs, governed by forces as unyielding as the laws of physics. Combined with the equally uncompromising psychological forces controlling Fonsia and Weller, the competitiveness of the card games inevitably produce a catastrophe where there was once the potential for respect and mutuality.
The script, in fact, is said to be an especially difficult one for actors to learn because the cards must be dealt, played, selected, and discarded precisely as specified since the card game itself, down to its mechanics such as shuffling, is coordinated with and interdependent on the movement of the play. The playwright himself devised scorecards for the gin games as an aid to the actors (see example below).
The outcomes of the card games and the implications and consequences of those results are intertwined with the significance of the dance scene and will be discussed in Part 2 of this post.
The Dance Scene
The dance scene was not part of the original play but was constructed for its 1997 Broadway revival.2 How the dance became, by the playwright’s own description, an essential element of the production, is best told by Coburn himself. The following is excerpted from The Gin Game Web Site:
The dance scene was added a few years ago when I received a phone call from Charles Nelson Reilly, the director of the Broadway revival. He was relaying a message from Julie Harris, who played Fonsia. Julie thought, wouldn’t it be nice since Charles Durning is such a wonderful dancer if they could dance at some point?3 “I called Charles Nelson Reilly back and said, “Don’t encourage anyone on this run because it’s very likely not going to happen.”4
About two weeks later, while having dinner with my wife, we were listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz.” And this is a very curious piece. It’s strange in that the lyrics are, in some cases, bizarre, but they are such beautiful harmonies. I started to see how a dance scene could offer a moment where we come to a full appreciation of the two characters as they get as close as we want them to be.
So I set about writing the scene and we performed it in the Broadway revival, and it was wonderful. Then we did it in again the West End production in London in 1999, with Joss Ackland and Dame Dorothy Tutin. And I continued to refine the scene there. Frith Banbury was the director there and one of the noted directors of the 20th Century in the English theater. So I called Frith afterwards and asked him if he felt the scene belongs. And he said, “Don, I not only feel it belongs, but that it’s imperative. It’s an essential part of the work.” I’m now confident of that, and it was good to get that confirmation.
Any doubts of the scene’s importance that remain are resolved by Mr. Coburn’s instructions, on The Gin Game Web Site, to those considering producing the play:
If you would like to incorporate this scene in your production, … there are two pieces of music involved: one, Take this Waltz by Leonard Cohen and another, Moonlight Serenade by Glenn Miller. … It is a requirement that only this music be used. It is what inspired me to write the scene in the first place and is specifically referred to in the text.
The PBS Production
In 2003, “The Gin Game” was transposed from the stage to the TV screen as part of the “PBS Hollywood Presents” series with D. L. Coburn himself adapting his stage play into a 90 minute production that PBS first broadcast on May 4th of that year.
I confess to having referenced the dance sequence from the PBS production of “The Gin Game” as that scene’s exemplar for this post for purely pragmatic considerations: given the choice of hoping a local theater group or a Broadway theater would put on a decent production of the play I could attend or renting the PBS version, a known quantity, from Netflix, the latter option seemed seemed the wiser choice.5 And, of course, should a reader wish to see the play, the PBS video is readily available.
I also admit to some trepidations because the PBS production was and continues to be marketed as a reunion of Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, who were on stage together for the first time nearly 40 years after they appeared together on the Dick Van Dyke Show. While I’m a fan of the TV sitcom and both actors, there was something here that smacked of a gimmick, a dramatic encore for two deserving stars.
Happily, my concerns proved unfounded; whatever the motivation for casting Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore in these roles, their performances, according to the critics’ evaluations as well as my own, were professionally capable, demonstrating well-schooled skills and craftsmanship.
The only incontrovertibly disappointing aspect of the “PBS Hollywood Presents” version of “The Gin Game” is the habit, now apparently fossilized into a shibboleth, of PBS, the BBC, and similar highfalutin, hoity-toity broadcast institutions of explicitly inducing or tacitly encouraging actors in TV versions of stage productions, including “The Gin Game,” to utilize the techniques and stagecraft integral to live theater.
Consequently, the players exhibit broad, exaggerated motions, strike stylized poses, and enunciate their lines as they project their voices as though attempting to assure that the ticketholder stuck in the back of the third balcony gets his money’s worth. My cynical guess is that the PBS-BBC axis is determined to remind the hicks, Philistines, dunderheads, and rednecks, with a flourish and exclamation worthy of Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian character – that “It’s THEATER!” and that thing the actors are doing – “It’s ACTING!.” The mannerisms, the troweled-on makeup, and the self-consciously theatrical stage set were conspicuous enough, at least from my perspective, to lend the production a Kabuki-esque aura.
None of which impaired my enjoyment of the play and especially the dance scene by a demi-whit.
Two additional casting issues specific to the PBS production deserve mention.
First, choosing Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, two actors heavily identified with comedy and a happy, albeit fictional, marriage, to play Weller and Fonsia inevitably sets up the audience with expectations of and implicit associations with romantic comedy, an especially treacherous circumstance, as we’ll see in Part 2 of this post, in the case of “The Gin Game.”
Second, Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz” is performed by a little-known singer named Scott Trammell, who is indeed so little-known that I could find almost no relevant information online about him.
Finally, as a sort of teaser for the already alluded to Part 2, I offer these notes from Arvin Brown, the Director of the PBS production of “The Gin Game,” about staging the dance scene:
With Dick and Mary, it [the dance scene] was just irresistible because they’re both fabulous dancers. As they dance together, I have the camera on a crane, and we rise up slowly with them. The camera expresses their sense of being lifted. In the next moment, a hand-held camera is directly on their faces, moving in a circular way with them as they dance. Those kinds of decisions you can make with the camera are life-enhancing for the piece. Mary found wonderful ways to try to entice Dick onto the floor with her, because his character is reluctant to dance. Dick and Mary very carefully sidestepped any question of coming together and suddenly dazzling us with fancy footwork. It’s a lovely moment to watch them do it, but it’s a Fonsia-Weller moment.
Unrealized Potential of Cohen’s Take This Waltz in The Gin Game
Part 2: The Tragic Poignancy Of Love Touched But Not Grasped
- The only production of “The Gin Game” I’ve seen is the video of the PBS version of the play (which is discussed later in this piece). Since the PBS TV screenplay was adapted from the script by the playwright, D.L. Coburn, my working assumption, until shown otherwise, is that the staging of the dance in this production is in line with his intentions and instructions. [↩]
- It has been reported elsewhere that the dance scene was first developed for for the actors in the PBS version (see below), Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, both of whom are expert dancers. This supposition, caused I suspect by PBS marketing which focused on the dance scene, is incorrect [↩]
- Julie Harris discussed this incident contemporaneously in an interview with Steve Capra’ for The New York Critic: on March 1, 1997. “And it’s an extraordinary play. And I’ve spoken to Mr. Coburn – Don Coburn, who wrote the play – and he’s coming to the rehearsal period, which I find very exciting. We even made a suggestion to him about… You see, Charles Durning is playing opposite me – he’s playing Weller Martin – and Charlie happens to be a very beautiful ballroom dancer. And in the old age home, there’s a lot of activities going on. They have songfests and magicians, and dancing classes. I suggested to Charles Nelson Reilly, who’s directing the play, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a moment when Charlie and I could dance to the music that’s going on in the old age home?” And Mr. Colburn said “Oh, no, no… the play has been out in the world for twenty years, and I don’t see any advantage of writing something new for it.” But as a writer, as a creative person, he started thinking about it, and got excited about the idea, and has written us a new scene. So, we’re going to work on it. If it doesn’t work to his satisfaction, we won’t use it, but if it does, we will. We’re all very excited about it because it’s a wonderful scene. He’s found the perfect piece of music, Take This Waltz by Leonard Cohen. You know Leonard Cohen? It’s quite a poignant piece of music… So, we’re looking forward to that.” [↩]
- At The Gin Game Web Site, Mr. Coburn elaborates, “When I first heard this suggestion [to insert a dancing scene] on my answering machine, I not only rejected it, I was a bit indignant (not directly to Julie, of course, who is too sweet to disagree with).” [↩]
- A video of a London production of the original version of “The Gin Game,” starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, is also available but does not, of course, have the dance scene that was added later. [↩]