Loeb `Poker Session' Demands Full House
Judy Melinek's startling production of The Poker Session, by Hugh Leonard, deals out an enthralling theatrical experience that deserves and demands a full house at the Loeb Experimental Theater. Under T.J. Mitchell's direction this superb cast delivers a seamless and chilling performance of a darkly comic morality play turned horror story.
Directed by T.J. Mitchell
At the Loeb Experimental
Through December 1
Set in a quiet suburb of Dublin, this psychodrama unfolds over the card table of Billy Beavis (Jonathan Hammel), who has been home for less than a day from a twelve-month stint at an insane asylum. To celebrate his return he has brought together what remains of his family and friends to participate in an old ritual of friendship--"a poker session." Over the course of the play this friendly game gradually reveals itself to be a carefully orchestrated trial of vengeance. Along with his friend Teddy (C. Michael Rodriguez), a fellow outpatient from the asylum, Billy presides over a tense and engaging indictment of his guests, whose unconscious cruelty and casual callousness ultimately caused his breakdown.
From the play's inception it becomes clear that tension lies behind the placid facade of Billy's life. His brother Kevin, superbly portrayed by Glenn Kessler, conceals an egocentric, materialistic, and greedy nature with an exterior of gruff amiability. He insensitively jokes about his "lunatic" brother behind his back almost as soon as he returns. Kevin's wife Fran (played with equal finesse by Janine Poreba) is perfect for him--she mocks her husband for his cruel egotism as often as she defends him.
Billy's old love Irene (Unity Star Johnson) enjoys an immediate rapport with him, but their relationship ultimately proves to be a source of anxiety for Billy. And the seemingly innocuous charm of his mother (Emily Drugge) turns to callousness and ignorance in the spotlight of Billy's interrogation.
In the second act, Billy and Teddy proceed to disrupt the quiet veneer of domestic complacency which characterizes Billy's suburban existence. They do so slowly, artfully--skeletons emerge from the closet of each character in the first act, preparing the audience for Teddy's explosive discoveries in the second act. Rodriguez turns a brilliant performance as Billy's friend from the asylum, whose mercurial energy and neurotic intensity combine with keen wit and perception. As Billy's lawyer in this card-game-turned-trial, Teddy embodies the insanity of the everyday as much as he exposes it.
The play maintains a comic pitch even at its most tense and powerful moments. Billy turns his sense of betrayal and anger into a catalyst for self-knowledge as he incessantly jokes about his illness throughout the play. But this comic element underscores the paradox that the play adresses: the "insane" are more sane than the "sane." As Teddy jokes to Irene at one point, "He's insane, you know, which is advantageous...because it's curable, while sanity isn't."
The language of this play is comic, precise and lyrical, and every member of the cast delivers the text with perfect sensitivity and meaning. The interaction between the actors on stage is engaging, and the pace of the dialogue, delivered in a rich Irish brogue, is carefully crafted and natural. Hammel excels in his depiction of Billy's solipsism, anger and sense of justice. Hammel portrays Billy's highly complex character with a combination of humor, melancholy, wisdom and power. This is a stunningly well-executed play; it is a shame that The Poker Session runs only one weekend.