Photo by Owen Carey

THEATERGOERS with a taste for cards will find themselves frustrated during the first act of Artist Rep's production of The Gin Game. Lonely oldsters Weller (Allen Nause) and Fonsia (Vana O'Brien) play seemingly endless hands of gin rummy as they get to know each other on the porch of their retirement home, and it's excruciating to watch the games unfold without being able to see who's playing what.

Because there's some intrigue in these cards: Weller taught Fonsia how to play the game, but it's Fonsia who wins, hand after hand. Is she playing well, or is he playing poorly? Weller's temper flares when he can't win a game, suggesting he might not be so charming after all—and why is a sweet old lady like Fonsia alone on visitors' day?

At intermission, I was convinced Nause had been miscast—he seemed too antic and affable, too fundamentally likeable to rise (or descend) to the challenges of his bullying, explosive character.

Act 2, though, leaves no doubt as to the rightness of the casting.

Over days and weeks, Fonsia beats Weller, hand after hand; an increasingly agitated and violent Weller curses his bad luck, curses the deal with God or karma that Fonsia's winning streak must indicate. Finally, all the needling gets through Fonsia's polite old-lady façade—when the characters finally clash, it's titanic. These two old pros laying into each other is like watching a child bash together two action figures: joints locked, arms rigid, expressions fixed. Weller and Fonsia have entire lifetimes behind them. They've already become who they are, and neither one of them is capable of changing now, even when friendship and romance beckon.

If Nause rises to inhabit his character, Vana O'Brien's performance is a master class in itself: Her delivery of a single venomous expletive was the most precise, loaded, and hilarious line reading I've seen all season. (Watch her hands; they're your grandmother's hands.)

The Gin Game is a tragic, wretched sort of a play; it will probably make you feel worse about yourself and about humanity. It's also very, very good. Under JoAnn Johnson's direction, humor threads the show, but doesn't make it go down any easier—it's genuinely difficult to watch as these characters' illusions about themselves are systematically undone.