D.L. Coburn Won a Pulitzer for The Gin Game in '78, and the Game's Been Going Ever Since
The best things that can happen to a playwright happened to Dallas writer D. L. Coburn in the 1970s. Then in his mid-30s and working in advertising, Coburn wrote his first play, The Gin Game, a two-act two-hander about a man named Weller and a woman named Fonsia. In their 70s, they meet on the porch of a rundown "old folks home," play cards (she always wins) and learn about each other's lives and infirmities.
From its first small production in Los Angeles in 1976, The Gin Game went on to be produced the following year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and soon enough on Broadway, directed by Mike Nichols and starring husband-and-wife actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. It won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for drama and was nominated as best new play by the Drama Desk and Tony awards.
It later was nominated for a 1997 Tony for Best Revival of Play for a second Broadway production starring Charles Durning and Julie Harris. An acclaimed London revival in 1999 starred Joss Ackland and Dorothy Tutin. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore did it for a 2002 television special.
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Dallas theater audiences haven't seen it in a long time, but The Gin Game will be performed at 7 p.m., Monday, March 25, at Kalita Humphreys Theater by veteran actors Tom Troupe and Carole Cook as part of the annual Preston and Mary Sue Jones Readings series presented by the Dallas Theater Center Guild. Coburn, now in his mid-70s and still living in Preston Hollow, will be there for the performance and for a post-show discussion led by DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty. Directing the reading is Scott Hammar, who stage managed DTC's 1982 production of the play.
Coburn, who's written a dozen plays and counting since The Gin Game, doesn't do many interviews, but he talked to us the other day about that first flash of success, how some actors don't know how to play gin rummy and ... well, lots of things.
The Gin Game is always being done somewhere, isn't it? It hasn't been done in this area for a while. But it's done throughout the world. I just got a request for a production in Paris. If I could find an excuse, I'd like to go to that one. They've just done it in Rome and in Japan. And they're doing it in China. I'm getting royalties from that, which is a surprise since they don't always honor the copyright there. I got an email from a guy in Mumbai, India, that somebody there had plagiarized the play and entered it in a competition. We got on that right away and sent them a notice and that play was withdrawn.
What's the last production of it you saw that you really loved? That would've been the West End in London [in 1999]. That was a stellar a performance. Joss Ackland and Dorothy Tutin were so good. But they were having trouble with the cards. They were just using dummy cards. So the producer asked me to help them learn to play gin rummy. [The characters play repeated games and do "Hollywood scoring" throughout.]
The play is hard for actors to memorize. A lot of the cues are the same. Getting them to use actual playing cards and helping them through how to incorporate the game in the flow of the play ... that's a key thing. The gin games themselves drive the play. I was just knocked over by the performances by both of them. Joss had such a power. We became close friends.
Go back to 1976, '77 and that first burst of success for your first play. What surprised you most about all that? That the play was being described as a comedy. I had written it more along tragic lines. But the audience was laughing. And I had to realize, it is funny in the beginning.
You were in your 30s, writing about old people. Now you're in your 70s. Looking back, what did you get right or wrong about getting old? I didn't start out writing the characters, Weller and Fonsia, as old. I can't recall the process of how they became old. At some point they did.
People always would say for the first few years, "You're so young. How did you write about these older people?" At a certain point, people stopped saying that.
Tolstoy said when he was 80, he still felt like the same person he was when he was 6. I think he was talking about an essential identity that we have that doesn't change us just because the numbers get bigger. I never really gave a thought to trying to write age. I just wrote people. Some of the experiences, of course, were things I had to have firsthand knowledge of. My aunt was in an old-age home at the time. Some of the indignities in The Gin Game occurred to her. I had other sources of information about that. But most of it was just stuff I'd actually seen and heard.
Right now it appears that I got it right, from my perspective as I've gotten older, I mean. I hope I don't parallel the experience of Weller and Fonsia too much. I hope I don't parallel it at all.
Age is not a number. It's what happens to you in life, how things play out and how your health is. There's a wide variety of how to be 72, for example. There's Jane Fonda and then there's someone in an old-age home at 68 and in poor health.
I'm an active playwright still. When I am writing on something, I still write every day. I still feel young. Years ago I called my mother on her 77th birthday. She said, "Don, I look in the mirror and say, `Who's this old lady?'" Now I know what she meant.
The reading of The Gin Game is 7 p.m. Monday, March 25 at Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 and available at the door with cash or check, or online at dtcguild.org.
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