D. L. Coburn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for the Broadway premiere of his play, ‘The Gin Game.’ More than 35 years later, Coburn remains Dallas’ only Pulitzer winner in the arts categories (Larry McMurtry won the fiction Pulitzer for ‘Lonesome Dove,’ but it’s quite a stretch calling him a Dallasite. He hasn’t even been in Archer City much these days, preferring Arizona.)
And now Coburn’s ‘The Gin Game’ is back on Broadway with James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson (it had previously been revived in 1997 with Charles Durning and Julie Harris).
The reviews have been uniformly glowing (here are the ones from ‘Variety‘ and ‘The Guardian’ and Newsday). But most of the praise has been heaped on the stars, while Coburn’s drama about two lonely inhabitants of a faded retirement home interacting testily over games of gin rummy usually gets slighted as ‘creaky’ or thin. One suspects reviewers have seen it before — in the hands of actors of a certain age, local regional favorites, who milked it for sentimentality.
On the other hand, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times responded the way many people do when they first see it (certainly the way I reacted when I first saw it): Wait. This isn’t just some heart-warming Hallmark junk?
In his rave review for Jones and Tyson (“utterly heart-rending”), Isherwood adds, “Having not seen it before, I confess that I was expecting a gauzy depiction of a late-life friendship, full of moist, twinkling moments inspiring “awwws” at the coming together of a pair of old folks in need of companionship.”
Instead, Coburn’s drama is a clear-eyed and moving portrayal of isolation, hard luck, human resolve and decline. (Linda Winer in ‘Newsday’ nails the play, calling it “deceptively lightweight.”) Whatever else he writes (and has written), the 77-year-old Coburn will inevitably be remembered for this two-hander — although I’d also like to make a case for his suggested motto for Our Fair City, still the best one-liner to capture Dallas: “We Can Get The Zoning Changed.”