"The Gin Game," which won D.L. Coburn a 1978 Pulitzer for what turned out to be his major work, comes from a decade when aging and other incurable inflictions filled American stages with a built-in dramatic crisis. For the reluctantly maturing baby boomers, these morbidity and mortality plays offered a jolt of momentary disbelief that, contrary to the spirit of the time, they would not always live forever.
In theory, all you need to play the game are two actors of a certain age, the porch of a nursing home and a deck of cards. In reality, however, Coburn's slim, deceptively lightweight duet is so hard to wrestle into submission that, in my experience, only the originals -- the married team of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn -- turned the leisurely and schematic showcase into a profound meeting of wills and even of magic.
The partnership of Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones comes very close. The multi-award-winning virtuosos, who have worked together at least five other times, manage to play off the intimate rhythms of one another while still making us believe that their characters begin as strangers.
This is the first time that Tyson, astonishing at 90, has returned to Broadway since winning the 2013 Tony for "The Trip to Bountiful." Jones, a relative baby of 84, has been one of the treasured regulars here for years. She is Fonsia Dorsey, a lonely new resident in the shabby wooden institution, and Jones plays Weller Martin, who has discontentedly been festering on that junk-piled porch long enough to resent every sing-along and bad meal.
Directed with leisurely sensitivity by Leonard Foglia, the production lets the balance of powers shift and flow through the games of gin that Coburn uses as a device to weave the characters' bond. Tyson, in fuzzy light brown curls and an omnipresent handbag, has a simplicity that makes everything look easy. Jones, mostly in old windbreakers and a scowl, uses a showy technique to suggest how hard the volatile Weller works to hide his own isolation. Both are estranged from their families and, after a while, we start to understand why.
Weller sets the rules of the game and aggressively counts the cards when conversation gets too close to emotions. For all her dainty supposed innocence, Fonsia can't help but win. Like Fonsia, we are never quite sure if Weller might huff and puff and blow her off her slippers, or curl up like a big bear in her tiny lap. It's nice, but not too nice.
WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
INFO $57-$141; 212-239-6200; thegingamebroadway.com