Marber's Dealer's Choice, currently running in a worthy production at the Empty Space, first opened in London four years ago. Predictably, the play soon traveled across the pond, where pub tales of the British working class, heavy with misspent testosterone and atmospheric terms like "bugger," "ponce," "shagging," and "dolly bird," are still hot. Certainly Dealer's Choice fits the bill. Set in a modest London restaurant, the all-male play (typically, women are absent abstractions) circles around a weekly poker game. The arch of Marber's drama follows one night and one game, during which the personal as well as financial stakes are raised a little too high.
In consistently balancing such a character-driven piece with its economic and class-based themes, director Rod Pilloud meets the script's biggest challenges with surprising grace. Marber, who has an extensive television background, has basically written a screenplay: long scenes sitting around a poker table are far better suited to film than to stage. For the most part, Pilloud manages to block around this hurdle to keep the action active. Of course, casting an impeccable ensemble helps, too. Colby Chester as Stephen, the restaurant patriarch; Daniel J. Chercover as his prodigal son; Timothy Hyland, John Bogar, and Ian Bell as Stephen's employees all give singularly fleshy performances. As Ash, the professional gambler who crashes their tidy family game, Mikel MacDonald plays the most complex character, and pulls it off flawlessly: Ash is at once a fastidious cynic, and a slave to the gamble. His subtle parry with Stephen, for whom winning is all, is far more interesting than the father-son conflict at the play's center.
The popularity of these blue-collar Brit dramas in the U.S., tracing at least as far back as the '50s with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, is an easy call. In a country built on denying its own class structure, we're often compelled to import the real story, whether we need to or not. Thing is, we don't: Plenty of American playwrights--Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Jerry Sterner, David Rabe, and most notably David Mamet--have mined the same tired territory, only with a more native flavor. (Mamet's use of gambling as a metaphor for capitalism in House of Games, for example, lands much closer to home than Marber's puddle jumper.) It's time both sides of the Atlantic found a new metaphor.