At a comfortable table at Alexandria’s Extra Perks Coffee Shop and Café, I had the happy opportunity to spend some delightful one-on-one time with The Gin Game‘s playwright D. L. Coburn. Coburn had come to Alexandria to take in a performance of MetroStage’s production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning classic two-hander.
In an easy-going, unplugged conversation of more than an hour or so, Coburn was a captivating story-teller. I sat in rapt attention to learn how The Gin Game almost magically went from the initial idea of a first time playwright, to written pages of dialogue, than thru some intermediary stops to find its way swiftly to Broadway.
As he spoke I could only think of guardian angels that must have been around him, guiding the script from his writing desk not far outside of Dallas, Texas, to a first production in 1976 in a small theater in LA, to a March 1977 opening production in what is now the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, which starred Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn on Broadway, directed by Mike Nichols by October 1977. The speed of the trajectory took my breath away. When I asked about it, he said it was so unanticipated; a whirlwind. And he had a real full-time job at the time he was writing the script for The Gin Game.
I settled in to listen. With his relaxed style of chatting, I was like a hitchhiker driving with someone who knew where he was heading and was happy to chat. It was just a natural conversation sitting around a table.
Coburn took me through his real world work in the mid-1970 as he wrote The Gin Game. Originally from East Baltimore, he was an advertising executive working with the likes of Pepsi. He was matter-of-fact as he spoke of coming up with the Pepsi challenge campaign and convinced others that it was a winner. Coburn also chatted about his working on what was one of the first “Green” ad campaigns in America.
But, the most interesting thing about his ad career was when he said that he had a quite understanding boss who had was a key role in Coburn’s writing career; a boss who understood his need to write and understood there was life beyond selling products.
Coburn walked me through how The Gin Game script was first produced at a small and very new American Theater Arts in LA. He had a fortunate connection with a director. The Gin Game became the first play produced at American Theater Arts in September 1976, directed by Kip Niven. The show received a favorable Variety review. He was just reeling me like a hooked fish. All I could do was look at Coburn with wide eyes at the Variety review in a time when such must have been rare for a new playwright’s first play.
The Variety review, led to The Gin Game becoming the initial offering of the initial season of the Actors Theatre of Louisville festival (now the Humana Festival) of new American plays in March 1977. It was directed by Jon Jory.
Lightning continued to strike for Coburn and his The Gin Game. With the Louisville production Hume Cronyn became aware of the play. He suggested to Coburn that Mike Nichols might want to read it. As Coburn spoke about Nichols he stopped for a moment to take in a breath at the improbable nature of Mike Nichols reading his play and wanting to direct it. (Around this time Nichols had directed Streamers and then Annie on stage in NYC.)
Well, Nichols read The Gin Game script quickly. In October 1977, The Gin Game opened on Broadway starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy with Nichols. I may have known these facts, but I had to shake my head with Coburn as he spoke of what seemed too improbable to me in real life; it was perhaps 18 months from first production to Broadway.
Coburn described all of this in a totally engaging, understated manner. He then chatted about the many productions of The Gin Game throughout the United States by regional theaters and college and even high schools over the years. When I ask about international production he noted productions in Russia in 1981 with two other American plays, such as Death of a Salesman, and in China in 1985.
The 1997 Broadway revival starring Charles Durning and Julie Harris, directed by Charles Nelson Reiley, led to a key change. It was at the suggestion of Julie Harris that a dance sequence was added to The Gin Game, near the climatic heart-breaking moment. Harris had suggested adding a dance between Weller and Fonsia, and Coburn was not enamored with the idea at first. But giving it thought, the dance idea made sense as a way to show a moment of real intimacy and possibilities of some happiness between Weller and Fonsia.
Then he told me something that I just never had thought about with scripts. The additional dance scene was added, but it had to wait for the next script re-printing. Old scripts had to be depleted first.
As many of us are aware, in October 2015, there was a third Broadway revival, this time with Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. It was the first that Coburn was aware that the two characters were African-American actors. So MetroStage’s production with an African American cast is apparently only the second production with an African American cast.
Throughout our time together, Coburn was open and informative. As neared the end of our time I asked about productions outside of the United States. How did they fare? He let me know that other countries may have their own cultural values and styles, but the two characters’ relationship that is the central focus of The Gin Game reaches across boundaries of language and customs and even ages as high school and college students are regularly performing The Gin Game.
My chat with Coburn, of course, had to end. He had more on his travel plate while here in the DC area. But as a final side-bar, I did come to learn that Coburn has some opera ideas percolating.
Review of The Gin Game by Jane Franklin.
In the Moment: The Soundscape of MetroStage’s The Gin Game Rocks! by David Siegel.
The Gin Game ended its run on March 12, 2017, at MetroStage – 1201 North Royal Street, in Alexandria, VA.