A Gambler’s Guide to Dying
Reviewed by Jenny Lower
Ruskin Group Theatre
Through April 29
In just over an hour, Scottish playwright Gary McNair’s affectionate portrait of the rise and fall of an inveterate gambler manages to span 45 years, chart a grandson’s disillusionment and recovery of faith in his hero, mull the randomness of the universe, and probe the legacy of any human life. And at just over an hour, the Ruskin Group Theatre’s Los Angeles premiere of A Gambler’s Guide to Dying manages to feel a shade too long.
The show is not, I should clarify, poorly done. Directed by Paul Linke, lead performer Maury Sterling gives a capable and often compelling performance as a young man recounting his grandfather’s incongruous climb from empty-belly poverty to millionaire status by way of a canny bet on the 1966 World Cup. En route, the Scotsman inducts his grandson into the dubious fraternity of long-odds betting, and undertakes his wildest wager to date: that he will outlive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis long enough to see the new millennium.
Sterling pivots nimbly between moods and characters, portraying both generations (as well as taking on an assortment of supporting roles) and employing discrete brogues that seem natural rather than strained. He captures the grandfather’s impishness, his grandson’s adolescent uncertainty, and a schoolmaster’s moral gravity, weaving his tale with the ease of an accomplished thespian.
But while technically proficient, the production rarely moved me beyond a surface appreciation of its merits. More than once, I found my mind wandering. Perhaps it was the wealth of allusions to Scottish geography and cultural ephemera, catalogued in a two-page program glossary, that challenged my American ear and attention span, and made it more difficult to slip into the play’s emotional current.
Or perhaps it’s because the tale of any addict, no matter how enchanting or charming its delivery, soon feels oppressive. That’s the narrator’s point here too, or one of them: The patina of sharing a private pastime with his grandfather dulls once he recognizes these weekly jaunts to the bookie would, and do, happen even in his absence. The diversion is a compulsion rather than a choice.
Despite this acknowledgement, there remains in McNair’s script an urgency to valorize his fallen hero’s flaws, to turn them into an aggrandizing, nostalgic elegy for the Scottish character and its proclivity for noble failure. That angle leads to an interesting dialectic near the end of the play, and may partially explain the show’s popularity among Edinburgh Fringe audiences last year.
McNair has punted on the question of whether his story is autobiographical. If so, his approach is understandable and all too human coming from a grandson for whom these moments represent prized memories. But waste on that scale, both financial and human, is difficult to brush off with a fond reminiscence, and I found myself straining against the play’s soft-focus treatment of its central disease.
There are moments when McNair’s script and Sterling’s performance broke through that resistance, and some moments, aided by Mike Reilly’s lighting design, that approach spell-binding — until the young narrator reflected on the mystery of how each person came to this point in the universe at this moment in time, and I found myself again dwelling on how I came to occupy this particular theater.
Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 29. www.ruskingrouptheatre.com; (310) 397-3244. Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission.