THE MEN OF MAH JONGG is not your typical comedy. Watching four, aging Jewish guys, sitting around in a New York apartment, kvetching about life, love, money and relationships, doesn't exactly sound much like a fun-filled scenario. But thanks to the witty, fast-paced, Jewish dialogue and repartee, delivered by these four, very real and quite different, old friends, the play is not only very funny, it's also thought-provoking.
Playwright and director, Richard Atkins, who moved from New York to New Mexico after 9/11, calls THE MEN OF MAH JONGG a 'dramedy'. The play deals with serious aspects of the human condition - mortality, grieving, aging, relationships - but treats them with irresistible humor all the way through.
The play is set in the New York apartment of Sidney Weinberg (endearingly played by Tim Reardon.) He has been overwhelmed by grief (and vicodin) and has not left the apartment, since his wife, Mildred, died 2 years earlier. His only social activity is a weekly get-together with his friends, to play poker.
The characters are all clearly defined and they really do interact authentically, as old friends. This is apparently the first time that Atkins has directed and, hopefully, it won't be the last, because he did a great job.
Marvin (perfectly portrayed by Ray Orley) is Sid's long-suffering accountant and 'care-giver.' He has the closest and most intense relationship with Sid, a relationship that develops, along with all the others, as the play progresses. One day Sid finds, in the mail, a package addressed to his dear, departed wife. It contains a CD, with instructions on how to play mah jongg, a Chinese game traditionally played by women and one his wife had particularly loved. Taking this as a sign from his beloved Mildred, Sid decides to replace the men's weekly poker games, with mah jongg.
How they move from derision to dedication and how the game impacts their lives and their relationships, is the underlying theme of the play. But there's also an overlay of personal stories:
Harry wants to be an actor and has been offered the lead part in an off-off-Broadway production, playing the part of someone suffering from Alzheimer's. Phil Shortell does a fine job as Harry, taking full advantage of the comic potential presented by the Alzheimer's connection.
And Jerry (Scott Claunch) the fourth member of the group, believes himself to be a gifted song-writer. The fact that he seems incapable of coming up with more than one melody doesn't deter him in the slightest.
Richard Atkins apparently continued to work on the script, with a little help from Tony Award winning playwright, Mark Medoff ( CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD) even after it was first produced in 2008. He has now come up with a play, which is tightly constructed, enormously engaging and even laugh-out-loud funny. It's also very timely.
Leading actors, including Alan Arkin, have expressed an interest, should it ever be made into a film and there are rumors of a possible Broadway production. So it looks as though good things are on the horizon for THE MEN OF MAH JONGG. And deservedly so.
THE MEN OF MAH JONGG is playing at the Adobe Theater (www.adobetheater.org) June 1 thru' 24. Tel: 505.898.9222. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8.00pm and Sundays at 2.00pm. If it's not already sold out, rush and get a ticket!
Photo courtesy of Richard Atkins