In the Cards

In 1995, well before Tobey Maguire, Bravo and your grandmother jumped on the poker tip, Patrick Marber penned the play Dealer's Choice, the story of six men, their weekly poker game and the dreams they keep up their sleeves.

The play was a success when first produced, but the recent poker frenzy could elevate Marber to prophet status -- at least at Theater LaB Houston, where Dealer's Choice opens this week. Marber recently had another good hand in the game of life: a little film called Closer, adapted from one of his plays.

The difference between the two works, says show director Ann C. James, is stark. "Where the other one dealt with cheating and relationships and dishonesty and infidelity, this one deals with bonding and trust and loyalty as a group." Many critics have called Dealer's Choice a "comic drama"; its testosterone-heavy, expletive-filled, booze-fueled action incorporates plenty of humor. (Poker is, after all, a game.)

But Dealer's Choice is hardly demon-free; Marber allegedly exorcised his own addiction -- one that lost the Englishman thousands of pounds he didn't have -- during its composition. The men in Dealer's Choice each have failed, lost or given up at something, and poker is at once a reprieve from and the fuel for their hopes. One aspires to play the game professionally; another dreams of opening a restaurant; and a third talks of simply bringing his young daughter to the zoo -- before inevitably blowing her admission price on a bad hand.

"The addiction is absolutely palpable," says James. But she adds that even the most ardent gambling hater will have trouble condemning the men. "The characters are so engaging, you're just rooting for all of them," she says. "I have an idea of who the favorite is going to be, but I'm not going to put it out there. Maybe we'll take a vote at the end of the night."

If only real poker worked that way.

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Julia Ramey