There’s a famous joke about a man who prays for years to win the lottery. He tries to live a righteous life and promises to use the money for good, but his prayers grow increasingly bitter. One day, as he’s leaving church, having given God an earful, the clouds part and a voice booms, “Hey, moron, you have to buy a ticket!” A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, which launches 59E59’s 13th annual Brits Off Broadway festival this week, is about a man for whom buying the ticket is more than good advice; it’s his life philosophy.
Gambler’s Guide is an Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit by Glaswegian playwright/performer Gary McNair. He plays an unnamed narrator recounting the story of his grandfather Archie, who won a fortune on a long-shot 1966 World Cup wager and then proceeded to bet it all on living to see the year 2000 after being diagnosed with cancer. It’s a charming, featherweight tall tale that glides along on the winning rapport McNair creates with the audience.
The play is timed to coincide with Tartan Week 2017, and it shows. Short of featuring a man playing “Auld Lang Syne” on the bagpipes while eating haggis and tossing a caber, Gambler’s Guide could hardly be more Scottish. From Irn Bru to McNair’s thick Scots accent, it wears its Scottishness as a bruised badge of honor. The characters, who hail from Glasgow’s working class Gorbals neighborhood, figure their ages in Gorbals years, which are “a bit like dog years but for people from the Gorbals”; they compensate for their low life expectancy by tacking an extra third onto their age. This pragmatic outlook informs both the play’s humor and its hardscrabble wisdom, gleaned from a life at the bottom of the heap.
With Brexit and a possible second Scottish independence referendum on the horizon, the play is also a shrewd political choice with which to open Brits Off Broadway. Scotland’s vexed, codependent relationship with England is the show’s political backdrop. Archie is considered a traitor for winning on an England victory because, as McNair says, “only the Scots could feel like they’d suffered their greatest ever defeat when they weren’t even playing.” Though the monologue doesn’t have much to say about Scottish independence either way, it is a sobering reminder that Brits Off Broadway, not to mention Britain itself, could look very different within a couple years.
McNair’s narrator is a nervous storyteller, all hunched shoulders and shaking hands. It would be easy to confuse McNair with his creation, but that would be a mistake; he is not creating documentary theater but flitting between postures and voices to create the social world of the Gorbals, always trusting that the audience will keep pace with the shifts. If he doesn’t possess the technical precision of a Jefferson Mays or an Anna Deavere Smith, there is still a warmth and clear regard for each character that calls to mind Cillian Murphy’s work at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Enda Walsh’s Misterman.
To watch McNair wrestle with the difficulty of summarizing an entire human life in 70 minutes is to marvel at life’s glorious instability. Was Archie great, simple, or ordinary? Was he a father, a mate, a liar, a cheat, an addict, or a hero? Yes to all the above, Gambler’s Guide says. All that and more. For the narrator, Archie is “a version of a version of a man, floating in memories, reduced to a shorthand and trapped inside a story that’s been embellished and distorted in so many different ways.” It’s hard to imagine a better description of the way the stories we tell come to define us.
If it’s through stories that we grapple with a person’s many faces, though, A Gambler’s Guide to Dying illustrates one of the pitfalls of that process: the absence of identity in the storyteller. McNair’s nameless narrator is dynamic and engaging, but he is also an unknowable hollow at the center of the play. This makes sympathy or understanding difficult, which may be the play’s ultimate message: though we can never really know one another, we’d best be about the business of trying to. As the play bittersweetly reminds us, “We remain in the genes of our children, everything we build and destroy, the people we touch, songs we sing, the stories we tell and leave behind. We echo into the ages and that has to be enough, because it’s all we have.”
A Gambler’s Guide to Dying plays through April 23 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Madison and Park). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with an added performance on Sunday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.