Here is the scam: there is a psychiatrist. Her patient owes a life-threatening amount of money to a card player, so she pays a visit to the House Of Games to try and rectify the situation. To tell you any more would severely impinge on your enjoyment.
House Of Games really is one of those shows where, to explain more than the first couple of scenes, just gives too much away, such are the levels of hustling, gambling and game playing going on. Even sharing that much might be showing too much of my hand.
David Mamet’s 1987 film, adapted for the stage by Richard Bean, is set in Chicago, where no one is entirely who they seem. Nancy Carroll plays cold, dislocated and hugely successful psychiatrist Margaret Ford who, goaded by her endearingly verbose gambling addict patient Billy (Al Weaver), steps out of her ivory tower and into the much grubbier real world. Rather than talking about problems, she has to encounter them.
Carroll, with the help of the slick, suave Michael Landes as card player Mike, warms Ford up. She is a strong, confident woman thrown into a world of deceitful machismo. What follows is the tooing and froing of power games as reality fades in and out of Ford’s world.
The trick to winning at poker, we are informed, is drawing your opponent in and playing the man, not the cards. It is about confidence. House Of Games works the same way, it gives the audience a little bit, just enough to build their belief, then hits with the sucker punch. Everyone is likeable, from the suited Mike to Dermot Crowley’s elder statesman Joey and John Marquez’s Bobby, who is always one step behind but steals many of the best comic lines as a result, at one point likening his friend to “The gay one in the Village People”.
Director Lindsay Posner keeps the action moving along swiftly on Peter Mackintosh’s basement bar set, all red wood and dirty checked floor. Django Bates’s music, played on a perfectly suited blues guitar, augments the atmospherics, drawing us deeper into the seedy underworld.
Maybe it was just because I had a fair idea of the plot that, after an hour in House Of Games’s company I could read its tells and spot when it was bluffing. At least, I thought I could. Maybe that was a bluff too, because the final scene, the most truthful in the whole show, came as a real surprise.