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"Am I a mug?" asks Mugsy (Kevin Brown) in Dealer's Choice, the card-sharp production now playing (no pun intended) at Theater LaB Houston. Yeah, mate, you are. But Mugsy's not the only fool in Patrick Marber's incisive play -- he's but one of six lovable losers who think they're winners.
Mugsy, a waiter who dreams of opening a tony restaurant, lives to lose, and that obsession blinds him to his many shortcomings. He wants to show up his employer, the icy intellectual Stephen, but that doesn't stop him from desperately pleading with him to invest in the rival establishment. The location Mugsy has picked for his eatery turns out to be a "public convenience" on a busy thoroughfare in central London -- much to the great mocking joy of his co-workers. He needs only 1,000 pounds for the down payment on a toilet. Of course, whatever money he attempts to save is promptly lost at the weekly poker games in the restaurant basement.
Mugsy is dim, puffed up and thoroughly oblivious to his own sad-sackness. But this foolhardy schlemiel is so satisfyingly endearing, he's like a cuddly doormat, and he becomes the cornerstone of Marber's dark, exceedingly funny comedy. Brown so inhabits Mugsy -- and seems so right in his hideously multicolored "lucky poker" Hawaiian shirt -- that we root for him even though we know he'll never amount to anything more than a back-slapping, glad-handing waiter.
Written in 1995, Choice was Marber's first stage success; he went on to pen the phenomenally famous Closer. Choice is like a David Mamet play -- in that it's about men who play hard instead of living hard -- only much funnier. Here, the game is poker, but it just as easily could be Monopoly, Candy Land or, more appropriate in this case, War -- if you played with intensity and emotional, ultrahigh stakes. It's not the specific game that's important, but what it represents: male bonding and the games grown-up boys play as they eke through life.
The basement is a rarefied place, perfumed with the heady scent of testosterone. Males only, please. Women are not wanted, or needed, except for the quick shag. They remain steadfastly offstage: groused about, defamed, drooled over. Consider the description of lothario Frankie's latest roll in the sack: "tits like the Hindenburg two Hindenburgs!" In this decidedly male bastion, women are harridans, whores or ball-busters deluxe. If they could, these non-poker-faced blokes would be content to remain downstairs playing their games forever.
These jokers are mugs who aren't destined to go very far. Restaurant owner Stephen (Lynn Miller) is a control freak so anal, he irons the baize each week before ceremoniously placing it on the table. His employees all owe him money, and he relishes their dependency. Yet he himself is dependent upon reprobate son Carl -- and the only times he sees him are these Sunday-night card games. Carl (Travis Ammons) is a jittery man-child whose obsessive gambling only enmeshes him, financially as well as emotionally, in a love-hate relationship with his dad, who is constantly bailing him out of debt.
Frankie (McGregor Wright) mistakenly believes he's polished enough to move to Las Vegas to be a card shark. Desperate to leave, he thinks tonight is his chance to win enough money to bankroll his trip across the pond. Chef Sweeney (Tim Wrobel), with his nonsensical, common-man view of life, just needs some pin money so he can treat his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife, to a day at the zoo. And then there's the wild card in this deck of fools: the menacing Ash (Davi Jay), the pro come to collect Carl's gambling debt. Tonight, he's gonna take these amateurs big-time. He'd better, since he has gambling debts of his own to repay.
The ensemble cast members are ace-high, nailing their characters while effortlessly shuffling from the comic to the sad and back again. Abetted by director Ann C. James's sterling, knowing direction, the production is taut, inventive and laugh-out-loud funny.
Although these blokes remain pretty much the same at last hand as at first, Dealer's Choice is choice entertainment. Marber's ultimate statement seems to be this: Don't worry, nothing changes, keep dealing. Regardless of what you do, life goes on. You might as well play. As Mugsy says during a game, "It's about stamina. I have risen from the ashes like the proverbial dodo." Right on, you mug.