THE GAMBLING ROOM (Hella Fresh Theater): An ambitious conundrum

Hella Fresh is staging THE GAMBLING ROOM at Papermill Theater in Kensington. One of several little companies working in small neighborhood venues, Hella Fresh is contributing to the flowering of the arts in Philadelphia.

Playwright John Rosenberg has devised a clever entrée into the story set in 1963 in Saigon, as Sherman, a USIA attaché, greets Jack, a bit of a loose canon who, it turns out, plans to represent his father’s views in a speech to South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem.

The father, a recently deceased American diplomat, and an unwavering supporter of the Diem regime, has two sons, improbably named Jack and John, both in the diplomatic corps.

The Gambling Room Hella Fresh

This happened. Thich Quang Duc’s self immolation in Saigon in 1963. “Enjoy the Barbecue.”

Their father’s protégé, Sherman, is devoted to “spreading the gospel of democracy to the people of South Vietnam,” which involves plans to silence American journalists, including David Halberstam, who have soured on the violent, repressive Diem regime. But things are unclear and uncomfortable as Sherman and Jack talk. Is someone being set up? Is someone trying to kill them, even as they plan? Much later John arrives from the Gambling Room of the palace, “the comfortable place where violence is meted out.” He has offered their inheritance to implement their plan, and brings Sherman a gift from Madame Nhu (first lady of South Vietnam), a photo of a self-immolating Buddhist monk, inscribed “Enjoy the Barbecue.”

THE GAMBLING ROOM provides an opportunity to see the work of three interesting actors: Calvin Atkinson, Daniel J. Tobin, and Sebastian Cummings. These are talents to watch.

A promising play in an early phase, it would benefit from workshopping to tighten it up, sort out its direction, and pay closer attention to matters developing on stage. Writer and director John Rosenberg has provided a scan of his extensive research into Diem’s situation at that time in the seven-page, single spaced Top Secret File that serves as a program. So much background info is detailed that it should be mailed out to audience members a week before they plan to see the show!

Many currents run through the plotline making the lightly touched-on, but huge and complex issues even murkier.  Rife with family, jealousies, policy, ambition, love, small talk, and hints of conspiracy, treachery, and symbolism, THE GAMBLING ROOM is an ambitious conundrum that deserves an opportunity for development. But see it now in the rough, and be in on the ground floor. May 18 to June 9, 2013.  thepapermilltheater.com

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.