Review: Odds Are, You’ll Like ‘A Gambler’s Guide to Dying’ at 59E59 Theaters
By Justin Sharon, Contributing Writer, April 10, 2017
Andrew Carnegie, once the richest person on planet earth, gave away almost all his net worth to charity. (So much for the cheap Scot stereotype). In his words, “The man who dies rich thus dies disgraced.” That you can’t take it with you, and what we leave behind, lies at the heart of A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, an Edinburgh Fringe festival premiere which had its New York City opening during Scotland Week.
Gary McNair’s solo play, this year’s inaugural Brits Off Broadway production at 59E59 Theaters, centers on inveterate Glasgow gambler Archie Campbell. Decades after hitting the jackpot with a successful wager on England winning soccer’s World Cup in 1966 — a dicey proposition in the era’s hardscrabble watering holes north of Hadrian’s Wall — his pancreatic cancer diagnosis demonstrated just how fickle Lady Luck can be. Archie subsequently gambles his life savings on a hunch he can delay a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper until the year 2000. A moneymaking proposition? No spoilers here, although suffice to say that getting the chance to ring in a new millennium in the nation that gave the world “Auld Lang Syne” should be motivation aplenty. Little did we know then, of course, that The Aughts were destined to rival The Dirty Thirties as arguably the worst decade in modern memory.
McNair does double duty as both writer and performer, adroitly alternating between grizzled gambler rationalizing his addiction (“that feeling you might have won, that’s the best bit”) and rapt grandson regaled with tall tales of long odds. Wistful cosmic ruminations, Tuesdays with Morrie style, and an emotional ending soliloquy are interspersed with deadpan dry Scots humor. References to traditional Glaswegian tough guys Danny McGraw and Roddy ‘Knuckles’ McGin seem freshly topical in light of Robert Carlyle concurrently in Manhattan movie theaters, reprising his Trainspotting role as psychotic barroom brawler Begbie. On a slightly more cerebral note, Mr. McTavish, admirably refusing to be hamstrung by a name straight out of Central Casting, moves the plot forward effectively as a teacher of Religious, Moral and Philosophical studies.
At the outset, the story’s narrator warns audience members “It’s hard to know which parts of it are real and which parts of it I chose to believe are real.” If you can’t take it with you, sometimes you also can’t make it up. This past Saturday, barely an hour before New York’s annual Tartan Day Parade, a 14 to 1 long shot finished first in horse racing’s fabled Grand National, the world’s most famous steeplechase. In winning by a full four-and-a-half lengths, it became the first Scottish-trained horse to triumph at the event in almost four decades. Wherever he is, I’d like to think that one Archie Campbell had a wee flutter on the winner.
A Gambler’s Guide to Dying presented at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, NYC. 1 hour and 10 minutes with no intermission. Running through April 23, 2017. Produced by Show And Tell, with support from Creative Scotland, Made In Scotland, and the Traverse Theatre, for Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Written and performed by Gary McNair; directed by Gareth Nicholls; lighting design by Simon Hayes; sound design and original music by Michael John McCarthy; stage managers Fiona Johnston and Whitney M. Keeter.
Cover: Gary McNair in ‘A Gamblers Guide to Dying;’ photo: Benjamin Cowie.