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The cards are marked, but the enjoyment is real in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s The Gamblers.



If the very thought of attending a play written by the 19th century's "father of modern Russian realism" fills you with dread, fret not: This one-hour romp, written by Nikolai Gogol and produced by the Cleveland Museum of Art (as part of their VIVA! & Gala Around Town series), feels as modern as any production you're likely to see this year.

With a sharply satirical style in an adaptation by director Massoud Saidpour, The Gamblers focuses on professional card sharks, who foist treacheries that will not surprise anyone who has seen David Mamet's film House of Games or any similar con stories. But what is extraordinary here is the seamless ensemble performance Saidpour and his live-wire cast pull off.

The play takes place in a secluded card room run by the groveling and greedy Alexey (a pitch-perfect Allen Branstein), where slick Mr. Rov is planning to fleece some local players. To this end, he has brought along a wondrous tackle box, filled with his marked decks. As Rov, Terence Cranendonk literally squirms with sleazy glee as he wallows in his unapologetic fixation with cheating.

As you might expect, there are surprises in store for Rov once the other players show up. Led by Mr. Tesh (an oleaginous Fabio Polanco), the card games lead up to the targeting of a young mark, the son of a millionaire who has left the premises. In perhaps the production's most sublime moment, director Saidpour choreographs a silent and seated blackjack ballet that captures the essence of a con in action.

By having his actors appropriately stylize their performances, Saidpour animates Gogol's often humorous meditation on the craven, money-grubbing aspects of human nature. And in the process, the company conjures a taut and terrific stage experience.

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