What happens when men play Mah Jongg?images

More from the Sarah Blustain/Dorothy Stern articles:

It was the performance of a lifetime.
What Happens When Men Play Mah-jongg?

That is the question the pianist, actor and playwright Richard Atkins asks in his play “The Men of Mah Jongg,” which has heen traveling the country since 2008 (look for it next in Los Angeles this fall).

The play revolves around a depressed and debilitated widower named Sid, who decides to honor his wife’s memory by convincing his three buddies to replace their Thursday night poker game with mah-jongg. Of course, they think he’s nuts: they tell him men don’t play mah-jongg; they worry about “what would happen if anyone found out.” “What the hell’s happened to us?” shouts his friend Marv. “Used to talk politics, go to Yankee Stadium, gawk at pretty women fer’chrisake. Now whatta we do?… Play frikkin’ Mah Jongg?”

“I wanted to take my mother’s love for mah-jongg and combine it with my father’s gruff personality,” comments the 53-year-old playwright, who grew up in a Jewish ghetto of Baltimore watching his mother play the game with her friends.

Eventually, the men do start to play, and – like so many Jewish women before them – in between bams and craks, the men start to talk. Playing the game, says Atkins from his home in New Mexico, “they tend to be more insightful about each other. . . rather than [seeing] just the usual poker buddy. … It’s a way for them to see a different dimension in life, this game that is new and taboo. Like a person who has never been a photographer and takes a picture of an apple, and then sees so much in that apple that they’ve never seen before.”

Does Atkins play? “My mom taught me, but you know I was a boy who played baseball and football, and I couldn’t really be a boy who hung out with his mom and her girlfriends.” It’s that old story all over again, but Atkins’s play makes clear it could have a different ending.