“The Men of Mah Jongg”
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 24. $23-$33. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Roswell Cultural Arts Center, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260, get.org
By Wendell Brock
In “The Men of Mah Jongg,” a Jewish widower named Sidney had rather take Vicodin than cope with his wife’s death, his poker buddies’ horseplay or the pile of mail he tosses into the fireplace. That stack of unopened letters is a metaphor for Sidney’s inertia, yet it also contains a kind of magic bullet for his spiritual awakening.
Mah jongg is the secret weapon that transforms Sidney and his three buddies in Richard Atkins’ endearing little play at Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre. What hangs them up, and clutters their tale, is the glut of issues they bring to the table from the outside world: Marvin’s domestic crisis over his wife’s illness; Jerry’s infatuation with a much younger woman; budding senior thespian Harry’s turn in a play about Alzheimer’s; and so on.
As if this weren’t enough, Sidney has an upstairs neighbor who likes to play loud reggae music, and Sid’s daughter occasionally rings up to spill her own set of problems, a situation that plays up the character’s isolation and distance from matters closest to his heart.
With shades of Neil Simon and “Grumpy Old Men,” Atkins delivers a slight if overcomplicated comedy about a group of lifelong friends who are somehow starting over in the world — and are understandably frustrated, frightened, angered, enervated and titillated by the process.
Directed by James Donadio and nicely designed by David Manuel (sets) and Jim Alford (costumes), the play gets off to a sprightly and entertaining start.
But it sure takes a long time for Sidney (the wonderful Steve Coulter) to discover the instructional mah jongg tape, ordered by his wife and narrated by a perky Asian woman who operates like an enchantress, in the stack of junk mail. As the play natters on, the men are so busy knocking on doors and coming to blows over their petty disagreements that the story loses its way, and Atkins doesn’t resolve the idea that the ancient Chinese board game has a therapeutic power on this klatch of unlikely players.
Peter Thomasson gives a strong performance as Marvin, who speaks in an overbearing nasal rasp and fusses over Sidney so much that he comes across as kind of wife-y. Marvin gets angry when Sidney doesn’t return the affection or show gratitude. Jerry (Kevin Dougherty) is a musical theater lover who always enters singing, but he’s the least fully realized of the characters, and something about his thespian interests makes him blend a little with Harry (the delightful Jon Kohler), who practices his theatrical Alzheimer’s schtick on the gang.
Atkins has a good understanding of the kvetch-y rhythms of Jewish humor and the laugh-on-demand timing of sitcoms. He feels compassion for his characters, and his story finds an appreciative audience at Georgia Ensemble.
Though a bit longer than necessary, the show is a warm and sometimes charming diversion. Like any game, mah jongg requires skill, concentration and luck. With a little more polish, this play could be a winner.