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A Gambler’s Guide to Dying

A boy’s loving tribute to his Scots “granddad” and a thoughtful meditation on the riddles of life and death.

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Gary McNair in a scene from “A Gambler’s Guide to Dying” (Photo credit: Benjamin Cowie)

[avatar user=”David Kaufman” size=”96″ align=”left”] David Kaufman, Critic[/avatar]A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is both a boy’s loving tribute to his Scots “granddad” and a thoughtful meditation on the riddles of life and death. As written and performed by Gary McNair–in a thick, Scottish brogue–the one-man show focuses on his grandfather, Archie, a spry old codger who gambles not only on the World Cup, but, ultimately, also, on his own life. He also regales his grandson, McNair, with tales, and grandfatherly, life-affirming advice.

“To some he was dad, to some he was mate,” says McNair, at the top of his monologue, “to others he was liar, cheat, addict, hero, story teller.” Over the course of the next 70 minutes, McNair will also do, with modest effects and a modicum of success, other voices including his much younger self, a schoolteacher, mates of Archie’s, and even his own mother. Through it all, the one thing we never lose sight or sound of is his love for his grandfather.

Archie was 32 in 1966, when England won the World Cup and Archie won the money he bet with the “bookies.” But as McNair explains, given the age-old conflicts between the Scottish clans in the North and the Brits, this didn’t exactly go over well with Archie’s pub-mates, who beat him bloody as soon as they found out: “Only the Scots could feel like they’d suffered their greatest ever defeat when they weren’t even playing,” says, McNair, as “Narrator.”

Gary McNair in a scene from “A Gambler’s Guide to Dying” (Photo credit: Benjamin Cowie)

As it turned out, Archie only won 620 pounds. But as he tells his 7-year-old grandson many years later, “That was just from the first round,” and he won more from the “Final.” And as Archie further explains, he was so poor when he was growing up that “a single loaf of bread had to last the whole family a month,” and there were times when he was so hungry, he would “hallucinate.”

Though we also learn in the beginning that Archie would die of cancer, it isn’t until the end that we discover 2.5 million pounds were at stake, if he lived beyond the doctors’ predictions. As McNair also tells us, three of the five papers that ran a story about Archie–when he died–also had “an advert for a bookies” on the same page. “The house always wins,” McNair wryly adds.

Most of the scenes are between the “Boy” (or McNair’s younger self) and Archie, who, when he isn’t gambling, likes to work in his garden. In addition to assuming a deeper and richer voice to portray his grandfather, McNair always looks down at his invisible, younger self; and he always looks up when he becomes his former self, talking to his grandfather.

He also, at one point, forms a ball out of his body, and rolls around the stage, which is actually covered with an old, faded carpet, presumably in his grandfather’s house. The only other fixtures are a standing lamp, a simple chair and stepladder, and packed boxes, cluttering the space. (Though Simon Hayes receives credit for his fine lighting design and Michael John McCarthy for his serviceable sound and occasionally obtrusive music, no one is even named for the nondescript set or costumes.)

Gary McNair in a scene from “A Gambler’s Guide to Dying” (Photo credit: Benjamin Cowie)

McNair describes the “best night” of his life when he stayed over at Archie’s and they passed out on the sofa together, “his arm wrapped around my shoulder.” But then, for reasons which won’t be divulged here, he takes it back. He also recreates two or three times when he contradicted Archie, such as saying, “You weren’t lucky to survive a stabbing,” adding, after a pregnant pause, “You got stabbed!”

There are also a couple of scenes in McNair’s high school class, when his teacher, McTavish, utters his very first words: “There are two guarantees in life–you are born, and you die.” McNair brings gambling into his classroom situation, by asking McTavish: “There is no such thing as a guaranteed bet. Is there?” It is from McTavish that we learn that Sir Isaac Newton believed that everything that ever happened was supposed to happen–in the way that it happened–“and there is nothing you can do about it.”

But apart from hearing some more truisms along the way (consider: “We carry the past and the future inside of us at the same time” or “We are all living ordinary, extraordinary lives”), A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is a rather slight–if sweet–work, that leaves you, in the end, with little to ponder or appreciate, beyond McNair’s undying love for his granddad, and his somewhat impassioned performance.

A Gambler’s Guide to Dying (through April 23, 2017)

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit

Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission

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