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HOPE, DESPAIR IN THE CARDS OF `DEALER'S CHOICE'.

Byline: Reed Johnson Daily News Staff Writer

Male bonding rituals just aren't what they used to be. Whether it's the needling office banter of a David Mamet play, or the ugly sexual score-settling of last year's feature film ``In the Company of Men,'' popular culture indicates that men behaving badly is now a cherished spectator sport.

How then does Patrick Marber, in his bleak comedy ``Dealer's Choice,'' find a way to say something punchy and insightful about the male predicament without regurgitating the obvious?

Credit the smart, rambunctious voice of this young British playwright who distills farce, gallows humor and kitchen-sink realism into a 100-proof theatrical highball. Also credit Gordon Davidson and his colleague Robert Egan for having the good sense to bring this startling debut work to the Mark Taper Forum, where it's playing through May 31. It's essential viewing for anyone curious about the future of British theater.

``Dealer's Choice,'' which takes its name from the fateful, late-night poker game that forms its entire third act, is a bundle of engaging contradictions. It's a funny play about bitter disillusionment, an invigorating downer with a social conscience and a bottomless supply of one-liners. (If anything, Marber could actually stand to shed a few of his quick-and-dirty yuks.) The grinding poker game itself is not simply a handy metaphor but a lively means of exposing the secret hopes and despairs harbored by each of its six male characters.

As another dreary evening begins at a declining London restaurant, the establishment's owner, Stephen (well-played by Denis Arndt), is struggling to make peace with his ne'er-do-well gambler of a son, Carl (Adam Scott).

Carl's gambling obsession has landed him in hot water many times, and although his estranged father never misses a chance to berate Carl's bad habits, he also keeps feeding that habit with cash infusions in hopes of buying his son's affection.

Stephen applies the same carrot-and-stick philosophy to managing his staff, whose resentment of their boss is directly proportional to their economic dependence. There's Mugsy (a wondrously sad-sack Patrick Kerr), a bald, relentlessly upbeat loser who serves as the group's unwitting clown and the biggest victim of its weekly card games. Refusing to concede that the deck of life is firmly stacked against him, Mugsy dreams of opening his own restaurant in a renovated public lavatory - ``art deco style,'' he assures his colleagues.

Not surprisingly, Mugsy is constantly being ridiculed by his workmates - Sweeney (Daragh O'Malley), an impulsive absentee dad who's determined to spend his last 50 pounds taking his daughter to the zoo, not on poker; and Frankie (Dan Hildebrand), a brash hotshot who hopes to become a professional Las Vegas gambler.

The shaky camaraderie of this boys-only club is upset by the Act 2 arrival of Carl's friend and gambling mentor Ash (Daniel Davis), a gaunt, dry-witted mercenary. The conventional structure of ``Dealer's Choice,'' and Marber's tendency to telegraph his punches, assures us that somehow Ash is going to tip the evening's uneasy balance and bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. Yet Marber manages to keep a few cards up his sleeve, producing a climax that is powerful, if none too surprising.

Under Egan's otherwise thoughtful direction, ``Dealer's Choice'' at times seems too intent on slamming home points about the brutal, dehumanizing nature of low-stakes capitalism. Stephen in particular comes across as a more ruthlessly manipulative and unsympathetic fellow than the playwright probably intended.

Yet Marber's unflagging energy keeps his play edgily enjoyable right up to its angry, fatalistic conclusion. ``Dealer's Choice'' leaves you laughing, all right, but also unsettled at the way in which basically decent men can be conned into a lifetime of playing Russian roulette.

THE FACTS

What: ``Dealer's Choice.''

Where: Mark Taper Forum, Music Center of Los Angeles County, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through May 31.

Tickets: $29 to $37. Call (213) 628-2772.

Our rating: Three Stars.

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Photo

Photo: An obsessed gambler (Adam Scott, left) and his father (Denis Arndt) clash in ``Dealer's Choice.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Apr 24, 1998
Words:690
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