Where's the Next Bet?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Playwright John Steppling's characters are not the kind of people you'd like to meet in a dark alley. They are desperate men. They're men living on the fringes, outside the normal bounds of society. It's not that they are without honor, quite the contrary, but it's an honor and a code of an extraordinary world, often a lost world.

That world is gambling in Steppling's latest play Phantom Luck. Not the ritzy, family-fun pyramids and pirate shows of today's Las Vegas, but the gritty, hardscrabble world of race tracks, discarded betting slips, and bookies. A world where the outcome isn't nearly as important as the proposition itself; where addiction isn't a plot point so much as a given.

We're welcomed into this grimy world by Jerry Dunn -- a professional gambler who's near the end of his run. Then there's Anson, a terminally ill ex-convict, and the spectral female, Josepha, who seems to be one part lover, one part guardian angel. This trio is joined, or perhaps haunted, by gangster Johnny Cyr, who, as he says, has "known Jerry for hundreds of years."

The play is ostensibly about Jerry and Anson planning to rob a high stakes poker game, but the playwright, like his characters, is really less concerned with the outcome than the proposition itself. It's not so much whether they win or lose -- it's the idea of having something at stake. Steppling uses gambling and the plot as a doorway into these aging men's souls. It's the excuse to let them confess to us about mortality and growing old. These are virile, risk-taking men, then one day a young woman offers them a seat on a bus and suddenly gray hair, time, and mortality crashes down on them. What does a gambler do when there is no ‘next bet'?

What makes these confessions and characters so appealing is the almost Greek mixture of desperation and honor they're suffused with. Out of their mouths, the author coaxes a gritty, muscular language that's one part profanity laced machismo and one part poetry. It's the kind of mythic writing that actor's love to sink their teeth into and audiences are lucky to hear.

But like I said, Phantom Luck paints a world where the proposition, the process, is more important than the outcome. The trouble with gambling is you do win or lose. There is an outcome. And in theater, you need one...

Steppling resists the easy story of a couple of gambler's robbing a card game but he never gives us the more complicated story of men accounting for their lives. Maybe it's me, but I want it the bet to pay off. That said, the play is still a poignant one act meditation that's definitely worth seeing.

Phantom Luck plays at the Lost Studio on La Brea through November 28.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866.

What's your favorite theatrical gamble? Joint the conversation at KCRW.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image of James Storm and George Gerdes in Phantom Luck: Bonnie Perkinson