New Country for Old Men
Foreign becomes familiar in Adobe Theater’s Men of Mah Jongg
By Christie Chisholm
Richard Atkins has been bugging the Alibi for months to see his show. Atkins is like a one-man band of the theater world, with a hand in playwriting and another in acting while his feet flit between directing and composing. In this instance, Atkins is the author and director of The Men of Mah Jongg, the Adobe Theater’s newest production.
Photos by Richard Atkins
Atkins was so persistent in his requests for our attendance that we actually started to get annoyed. But then we submitted. Now we understand why he was so adamant—The Men of Mah Jongg may be one of the best pieces of theater to come out of Albuquerque this year.
The play revolves around four men grappling with age on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. We are introduced to them through Sidney Weinberg, who has become a shut-in after the loss of his wife. Refusing to answer his phone and generally ignoring the buzzer from downstairs, his only interaction with the world comes via his three friends, who ring that buzzer (and, when that fails, throw rocks at his window) until Sidney finally decides to let them in.
The closest of these friends is Marvin Epstein, who upon entering Sidney’s apartment immediately delivers his coffee, vacuums his floor, gathers his laundry and persuades the upstairs neighbor to turn down the music. While caring for Sidney and prodding him to re-enter the world, Marvin deals with his own demons as his wife becomes increasingly sick.
Then there’s Harry Himmelfarb, who’s randomly cast as the lead in a play about a man suffering from Alzheimer’s. Harry rehearses for his big role by successfully tricking his friends into thinking he’s gone senile. Rounding out this ensemble of geriatric misfits is Jerry Rosenthal, a composer—or he would be one if he could craft more than a single tune.
One day, Sidney discovers an envelope addressed to his late wife in the mail. He opens it to find an instructional video on how to become a master of mah-jongg, a game, as he says, invented by shrewd Asian men and stolen by Jewish women. Invigorated by the sense of connection to his wife imparted to him by the video, Sidney makes a bold move and suggests to his friends that they replace their weekly poker night with a game of mah-jongg. Reluctantly, they give in.
The Men of Mah Jongg is obviously a story about growing old and the loss that couples that experience—through health, family and one’s role in the world. But more importantly, it is a treatise on friendship. Sidney, Marvin, Harry and Jerry all struggle with their misfortunes. But together, their sum is greater than their individual ills. They tease each other and prod each other, and occasionally they try to strangle each other. But they also remind one another that being lonely isn’t the same as actually being alone.
Atkins’ script is a fine work in and of itself. Although it deals with some of the heartbreak inherent with aging, it is primarily a comedy, and a good one.
The script is further bolstered by a fantastic job from the cast. Tim Reardon plays Sidney, and he is a perfect curmudgeon. Phil Shortell is wonderful, as always, as the buoyant Harry; he exudes such warmth that you can’t help but smile at the mere sight of him. Scott Claunch takes on Jerry with seamless ease, as though he's faced with the same pestering, melodic problem as his character. But the true star of this show is Ray Orley, who plays Marvin. It is impossible to tell, in fact, if Orley is playing a character or if he’s just being himself. He is so beautifully natural in the role, and his long, undulating limbs so graceful, that watching him is addictive. Orley delivers some of the show’s funniest moments and certainly its most devastating. He could just as well play the part on Broadway or the big screen.
We’re glad Atkins is so darn tenacious. The Men of Mah Jongg is a quiet but elegant play. Unlike Atkins, we'll only tell you once, but we'll do it with conviction: See it while you still can.
The Men of Mah Jongg
Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23, 8 p.m.
Sunday, June 24, 2 p.m.
9813 Fourth Street NW
Tickets: $15, $13 students and seniors
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