Friday, March 26, 2010

Tuesday Night Poker

Hold on a second: posters of Jaws, The Warriors, and an MTA subway map, a poker table with a few chips, some cards, and plenty of Colt 45 . . . are we sure Tuesday Night Poker is a play, and not just a poker game between frat brothers? Oh, wait: Brennan (Matt Brown) just came on stage, and he's talking to a cop, Daughtery (Che Walker)--with that bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing out of the way, this is pretty clearly a play. Luckily, when the show sticks to its actual title--the regular Tuesday night game these five friends have been playing since their college days five years ago--it's a fairly good, energetic, and organic play (fresh enough to bring back flashes of Blair Singer's The Most Damaging Wound). And that's as it should be: it was developed by the cast, and it wouldn't be surprising to learn that some of the more vivid anecdotes--about the lurker in the bathroom, or the vomit queen--were straight-up memories.

It's unclear how much editing Jon McCormick (who is credited with the script, but not the story) and how much directing Ray Virta (who often has characters upstage themselves, or stand idly about) have done, but let's credit them with the excellent pacing of the actual poker scenes, which not only serve to quickly establish character, but make you want to go over there and ante up. It's as Beta (Nick Hulstine), the family man of the group who tries his best not to curse, says: "Good hands don't win pots, good players do." And these are largely good players, particularly Delta (Mike Hauschild), the whinger of the group who has a soft spot for ursology, and his rival Alpha (Adam Couperthwaite), the short-fused one who thinks the world is against him: he even accuses the sports video game he plays of "cheating" against him. As for the other two, McCormick seems to have shortchanged his own character, Chi--the easy-going rock of the group--but at least plays him extremely well. The same can't be said for Brown, who never gets a grip on how to play the killjoy straight guy of the group: he keeps weighing the show down with unearned significance instead of living in the moment.

This is not to argue that Tuesday Night Poker shouldn't strive for meaning. Nor is the central plot unrealistic, with Alpha convincing his four, equally unsuccessful friends to rob bars with him. Those scenes are actually funny, because this is by no means a well-oiled or hardened group of toughs. The problem is that after playing so much of the show for laughs (and rightly so), the neo-noir interruptions with Daughtery are hard to take seriously (there's a jazzy brass playing in the background), as is the big finale, which starts with easy, impactless resolutions, and ends with the unfortunate choice to stage the climax off-stage. This is Texas Hold 'Em, not blackjack: your aces can't be ones and tens, and there's no wilds. Ultimately, the cards speak, and while Tuesday Night Poker aims to portray a full house, it ends up with just a respectable two pair.

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