Pangdemonium!’s “Dealer’s Choice” review

Title of Production: Dealer’s Choice

Theatre Company: Pangdemonium!

Date of performance: 15 October 2011

Performance Venue: Drama Centre Theatre, National Library

What do you get when you put together an award-winning West End play, 6 dysfunctional male characters, an obsession with Poker, and no attempt to put any of the above into local context?

A very watchable play that made one think deeper about male friendships, obsession, and estrangement from women and loved ones. It gave viewers a peek into the unfulfilled expectations of the characters who speak the universal language of gambling.

Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice was staged judiciously by Pangdemonium! in the last quarter of the 2011, when casino culture was rife in Singapore, and Marina Bay Sands notably reaped an obscene net income of $367.6 million during the second quarter of 2011.

The play, supposed to be a companion piece to Marber’s Closer, was by no means a crowd-pleaser, and Pangdemonium! knew it.

Correspondingly, mainly the witty dialogue and metaphors about life being like a poker game rang true in a viewer’s minds. It sometimes even overshadowed the chemistry between the actors, which was palpable.

The plot revolved around 6 men who found some sort of twisted solace and male bonding in the games that they played with each other. Their compulsion to make something of themselves, albeit inflated or egoistic or a baby step away from their gravitation to consuming addiction, culminated in the weekly quasi-sacred ritual they called “Poker Night”.

Each character brought their own stakes to the Poker table in Act 3, which was when the play really picked up momentum.

Stephen (Adrian Pang), the owner of the restaurant that set the scene for the entire play, was all work and no play until he started in on the Poker game, where he unsuspectingly transformed into a kind of group therapist. He was able to see through the scheming of his own son Carl (Julian Low) and Ash the professional poker player (Daniel York). Carl and Ash both wished to recoup Carl’s debts by raking in winnings at Poker Night, and trick resident jester Mugsy the waiter (Andy Tear) into investing in a sorry restaurant at Mile End built over a toilet.

Stephen also rescued Mugsy from his own naivety and foolishness by helping him win a round of poker, and gave 50 quid to Sweeney the cook (Daniel Jenkins) when he lost the money which was meant to be used to bring his young daughter out somewhere special.

Exploration of the Frankie character (Keagan Kang) gave the audience an insight into the desperation permeating a low end waiter job. His  get-rich-quick aspirations of making it big as a gambler in Los Angeles ended in much frustration, when Ash revealed that Frankie had a “tell” that revealed his poker hand. I commend Kang for his acting here, for he pulled off the greatly believable and flippant Frankie with finesse.

As the players slowly bowed out of the game with self-loathing, leaving Stephen, Carl, Ash and Mugsy, the father-son drama heightened. Stephen eventually singled Ash out to ask him what the real deal was, and decided to pay off Carl’s debts to him without much wrangling.

It was evident that Stephen wasn’t a faultless father as well, when Carl confronted him subsequently and exclaimed in exasperation that “There’s nothing wrong with failure, as long as it’s on your terms.” The conversation ended on a very irresolute note, when Stephen asked Carl to return “same time next week” for another round of Poker.

The purpose of Poker Night for Stephen was no longer about the winning, but all about the last tie he had to his son. Which was why Stephen, clearly the smartest of the group, scrambled for subtle control of the poker games, to preserve the camaraderie between men who hang in the balance from their own damaged psyches and fractured relationships.

A word on the lovely set design by Eucien Chia. Not over-the-top, with good attention to detail. From a faux brick facade in the restaurant, basement stairs and coat-room in the first and second Act, to the revolving poker table and deck of cards floor design in the third Act, Chia provided a fitting setting to the play. His focus was not to distract from the substance of the dialogue and the characters, and upstage with the packaging and externals. Although I must admit that the attractive pre-show publicity campaigns made the show look almost Ocean’s Eleven-esque, and Milk photographie did a very creative TVC shoot featured in the programme booklet.

I wasn’t jumping out of my seat to give a standing ovation for the play, but I did applaud loudly to commend the theatre company for choosing to put up such a well-written play with more sophistication than the average Singaporean viewer could handle. The production was on a different plane from the usual mainstream slapstick and glitzy pantomimes of the holiday season. I disagree that it was long and boring, because it gave me the space to ruminate on what was said.  Realistic, tasteful, and cleverly executed.

I no longer under-estimate the effect of a weekly Poker Night ritual between men.

Jtbeans apologises for this belated review. Dealer’s choice played in Singapore at the Drama Centre Theatre from 29 September 2011 to 16 October 2011. 

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