Over here, we'd call them suckers, chumps, dopes, dupes or dumbasses. In Patrick Marber's working-class London, they're called "mugs," and they're just the kind of overconfident, undercompetent guys you want sitting across from you at a poker game. But in the poker game that's the centerpiece of Marber's play Dealer's Choice, currently in production at Stages Theatre, the trick isn't just figuring out who's the mug. It's also making sure the mug isn't you.
So let's meet the players, shall we? Mugsy (a highly energetic and charismatic Cody R. Storts) has no business sense, but he has grandiose dreams of opening his own restaurant in a renovated public lavatory (you know what they say: location, location, location!). His potential partner Carl (Scott Damian) is the archetypical compulsive gambler, willing to do anything to keep playing. And then there's Carl's father, Steven (Bill Glassman), host of the match and unwitting casualty of Carl's contribution to the game: lummox Frankie and steely pro Ash. Altogether, it's a deck stacked with jokers, jacks and aces.
And since this is the theater, you won't be surprised that this poker game isn't just a poker game. Instead, it's an allegory for each character's struggles—and each character's delusions—as much as an exhibition of poker prowess, although there are lots of well-staged, fast-moving gaming sequences, as well as fluid use of authentic cardsharp jargon. Marber has crafted a highly engaging script, giving each character enough humor and (crucially for a play about gambling) enough at stake to keep the audience in the game. For the most part, director Steven C. John has his ensemble working well together, even if it's a bit sluggish and forced at times.
The climactic moment between father and son and the insertion of the professional card shark Ash (a menacing Eddie Nickerson) into the mix should be the dramatic highlights of the show, but the play really hits its stride with R.C. Ormond's comfortable and connected performance as Frankie. The stereotypically masculine Frankie's stumblings are a mirror of our own faltering attempts at poise and assurance and a reflection of the muggery we're all guilty of. It's poker as a neat Mamet-style metaphor, a revelation of what these blokes secretly hold dear but are unable to disclose—and so they hide it behind a handful of cards.
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Dealer's Choice at Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through March 23. $12-$15.