The Gamester, Freyda Thomas’s re-do of a 17th Century French comedy, is like a sit-com in rhyming couplets. Loosely based on Le Joueur (1696), by Jean-Francois Regnard, Thomas took just the skeleton of this nearly lost, Moliere-era play, and punched it up, going for more sex, and more laughs. The result is a complete success. The Gamester is a comic tour-de-force with modern edges, made all the more enjoyable by the cast of actors assembled at ACT, and by the director, Ron Lagomarsino.
Thomas, who has created several other French farce adaptations (The Learned Ladies ran on Broadway in 1991 and a new play is called School for Trophy Wives) is, in real life, a singer/actress as well as a writer. The daughter of Big Band leader Eddie Shaw, she sang with his orchestra for decades, which may explain her taste for show-bizzy snap and bawd and her knack for punch-lines and rhythm. But where did she learn to write couplets? This structure adds meat to the comedy, brains to the business, and poetry, just in the knick-of-time. The presence of rhyming phrases serves as a kind of a tether to the earth when everything else in the play is threatening to float off into silliness.
Valere, the protagonist and compulsive gambler played by the exceedingly handsome Lorenzo Pisoni, is not as much an addict as a putz, someone who is lost but still likeable, whose youth makes him free of desperation, although the plot certainly sends him in that direction. The supporting cast, a wild and colorful bunch of Valere’s foils and foes, seem like happy actor wolves, tearing into the physical business Director Lagomarsino has given them, wearing out the floorboards during each of their moments in the center.
Joan Mankin, who plays the over-the-hill nymphomaniac, Madame Securite, is about as good a comedienne as one is likely to find on a stage, these days, with the kind of deeply satisfying comic mastery people like Carole Burnett and Lucille Ball used to deliver. On the other end of the spectrum, Margot White, who plays Angelique, the maiden desired by Valere, is young and pretty, and rather dull. White plays it straight when a wilier actor might have gone for a little hysteria, stupidity, or at least virginal horniness.
The Gamester takes dysfunction and laughs at it, which is not the easiest thing to pull off. Freyda Thomas apparently watched her own father, the famous band leader, spend his life out-of-control in that one regard, as a compulsive gambler. As a playwright, rather than a daughter, she doesn’t seem interested at all in tragedy, however. She has created a charming evening of bawdy, fast-moving delight. The company of superb actors at the Geary Theatre seem to be having the time of their lives. That’s a different addiction altogether.