Sunday, April 9, 2017

170.Review: A GAMBLER'S GUIDE TO DYING (seen April 5, 2017)

“The House Always Wins”

Although not specifically identified, it’s easy to believe that the geezer with the smiling face and twinkling eyes pictured on the program cover for A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is Archie Campbell, the granddad who forms the backbone of this autobiographical, one-man play by and starring Gary McNair. Capably directed by Gareth Nicholls, this award winner from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival comes to 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway festival courtesy of Show and Tell, in association with Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre Company.

Gary McNair. Photo: Benjamin Cowie.
In this comically diverting, emotionally touching piece, Scottish writer-actor Gary McNair, from Glasgow’s derelict Gorbals district, spends 70 minutes in the intimate confines of Theater C regaling us with comic and poignant tales of his roguish grandfather, of whom he says:  “To some he was dad, to some he was mate, to others he was a liar, cheat, addict, hero, story teller.” The uncredited setting, sensitively lit by Simon Hayes, is a simple platform covered with a tatty carpet, a few items of furniture, and an assortment of open and sealed cartons. An expertly crafted musical soundtrack, by Michael John McCarthy, offers perfect subliminal emotional support.

Gary McNair. Photo: Benjamin Cowie.
Shifting back and forth between portraying himself as a boy at different ages and Archie, with other characters sometimes appearing as well, McNair introduces the older man with a story about how, in 1966, he bet successfully on England to win the World Cup in English football. When he leaped off his barstool at the Iron Cross, his Glasgow pub, shouting “Ya fuckin’ beauty!” the result of his “treason” was much like what might happen if you expressed the same joy about the Yankees beating Boston in the American League Championship Series while sitting in a Beantown bar.
Gary McNair. Photo: Benjamin Cowie.
His mop of frizzy red hair loosely framing his face, McNair, speaking in an occasionally profane, burr-coated, working-class, Glaswegian dialect (which could clip a few burrs for easier comprehension over here), brings considerable sensitivity to his story. He changes his posture and expressions to convey who’s talking, although once or twice the speaker is unclear; he does a particularly nice job capturing the innocence of a wide-eyed boy speaking to a revered elder.
Gary McNair. Photo: Benjamin Cowie.
Whether Archie’s oft-told tale is true or tall, like other stories he tells (such as falling in the River Clyde and coming up with a salmon in his mouth), counts less than the loving relationship between a boy and his boastful granddad, who spins lively yarns while also teaching the lad how to gamble. Gambling, in fact, or luck, in general, is a metaphor for considerations of the difference between predestination and free will, which McNair uses for amusingly humorous effect in a scene involving Mr. McTavish, his high school teacher of Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies.

The central dramatic device appears about halfway through, in 1998, when McNair is 11 and learns that Archie has pancreatic cancer. Given a month to live, the inveterate punter shocks his grandson, who hoped he’d spend his savings more selfishly, by betting that he’d survive an extra month, leaving a legacy for his family. This would be the first time old Archie bet, not on men playing on a field, but on himself, on his own indomitable will to live. When he wins that bet, he puts his new fortune on another one, seeking to survive until the new millennium.
Gary McNair. Photo: Benjamin Cowie.
There are a few self-conscious moments when the monologue falters, especially when McNair’s tale reaches too hard for higher meanings couched in inspirational language. On the other hand, you’ll probably recognize the way we all burnish in memory even the more tarnished parts of a beloved late one's existence. If you’re looking for a Scottish-accented, well-written, and feelingly performed solo play, A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is a pretty sure thing.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC

Through April 23