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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the March 10, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: ‘Roulette’

There is something peculiar and unsettling about Paul Weitz’s play “Roulette,” and it isn’t because the playwright misidentifies it as a dark comedy. What is most peculiar is how we are supposed or expected to react to characters and situations that are either resolutely tragic or idiosyncratically pathetic. Weitz, whose credits are more notable for his screenplays (“Ant,” “About a Boy”) has, at the very least, attempted something unique: He has created characters who act without motivation, and situations that arise without meaning.

In “Roulette,” Jon (Larry Bryggman), a New York suburbanite and apparently successful businessman, has entered into a daily and dangerous game of Russian roulette with himself. The play is set in his home and in his city office, and begins with this well-dressed middle-aged gentleman calmly preparing his breakfast, spreading out the morning paper, sipping his coffee, and opening the briefcase from which he removes a revolver. He spins the chamber, holds the gun to his head and pulls the trigger. There is just a click. Whew! But, why is Jon so cool, calm, and collected? He is certainly deliberate, however, about this decision to end his life abruptly and, indeed, messily.

His marriage of 20 years or so, to the ex-cocktail waitress he met in a Las Vegas casino, includes two children still living at home and attending college. But why is Jon resigned to ending his life? In quick and frenetic succession we begin to see the roots of his well-concealed despair, as well as the rampant state of dysfunction that fuels his family and friends.

Jon’s wife, Enid (Leslie Lyles), is having torrid trysts with Steve (Mark Setlock), a married neighbor and family friend. For Enid, her casually undertaken affair is right in keeping with the egregious permissiveness that defines her relationship with her alcoholic, sluttish, drug-taking daughter Jenny (Anna Paquin), and her chemically-imbalanced hothead of a son, Jock (Shawn Hatosy). It doesn’t come as a revelation to Jon, when Steve’s hopelessly dippy wife Virginia (Ana Gasteyer), who suffers from a chronic nervous condition, tells Jon that she not only knows of her husband’s infidelity, but thinks it might be a good idea for her to have an affair with Jon just for revenge. Jon doesn’t think that is such a good idea, especially since he has a better idea cooked up. Act I reaches its climax with a big bang at a dinner party attended by all the above.

Far be it from me to spoil the rest of the plot and its resolution, let alone the point of the play, much of which I admit escaped me. Considering how Jon’s commitment to suicide does not seem to follow logically, soundly, or clinically from the facts, it is hard to know exactly what Weitz has in mind. If there is any amusement or interest to be found in “Roulette,” it comes from the wacky detachment of the performers and not from the inscrutable script. Suffice it to say that Jon manages to escape the insanity around him and return euphorically to the Las Vegas gaming tables of his happier days.

One can only admire director Trip Cullman for giving the actors plenty of room to wander off into their own specific worlds, except when they are meant to collide. As Jon, twice Tony-nominated (“Proof,” “Picnic”) Bryggman cannot be faulted for looking dazed and confounded through most of Act I, and can only be praised for the ways and means he uses to finally escape in Act II. Best known for her six-year stint on Saturday Night Live,” Gasteyer makes the most of Virginia’s emotional and physical instability without admitting any sense of reality or reason.

Shawn Hatosy puts the “Neanderthal” Jock through the rigorous, frenetic antics, and out-of-control responses, of your typical steroid-driven youth. Academy Award-winner (“The Piano”) Anna Paquin made a terrific impression last year in Rebecca Gilman’s “The Glory of Living.” But as Jenny, she has little to do but stand around looking bored, fed up, irritated, and trashy chic, all of which she does with arresting aplomb. In her role as Enid, the ineffectual mother and cheating wife, Lyles, whom I praised most recently for her work in “Wilderness of Mirrors” at George Street Playhouse, tries hard to ride the thin line between disingenuous naughtiness and callous indifference. Except for an aborted, mildly amusing living room seduction, the otherwise talented Mark Setlock, of “Fully Committed,” is, once again, fully committed, but to what is anybody’s guess. At least, Takeshi Kata’s bi-level set is functional, which is more than I can say for the play. HH

— Simon Saltzman

Roulette, Ensemble Studio Theater at the John Houseman Theater, 450 West 42nd Street, New York. $49.50 from Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. Runs through March 14.

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