Playing dominoes is serious business. This I learned when I Googled the subject and received, as a first result, the following news headline from Atlanta: "Argument over dominoes led to three killings." In Broke-ology, dominoes serve a happier purpose: they brings together a father, William, and his two sons, Ennis and Malcolm. Throughout the play, they keep trying to return to dominoes, as if the clarity and order of the game can help restore some clarity and order to their lives, upended by William's deteriorating physical condition.
It is not unusual, in the theater, for clans to gather during games: there's The Gin Game and the poker playing in The Odd Couple, for example. But the heavy family scenes generally take place during mealtimes; August: Osage County is only the latest in that line. In Broke-ology, such scenes take place not during meals-only scenes but during dominoes. Food is an afterthought, as we learn from the following exchange after take-out grub has been brought home and dominoes have been dumped on the table:
"You don't want to eat first."
"What? You can't hold your bones and eat a sandwich at the same time. I've been waiting since you left last August to play and I have to wait for you to finish your fancy meal. You done got soft."
For me, the two evocative words in Ennis's speech are "bones" and "August." Why, I asked myself, are dominoes called bones? (I guess I had a deprived childhood out there on the Great Plains of South Dakota: the games of choice were Monopoly, poker, and Trivial Pursuit; a domino conjured up not a game or a pizza but Domino Theory, that rationale for explaining why if the U.S. didn't keep communism out of Vietnam then nearby countries would topple, like dominoes.)
Anyway, dominoes are called bones because the earliest domino tiles were made from animal bones or ivory. Originally, dominoes were made from ivory inlaid with ebony pips, and these sets are valuable because hunting for ivory is now banned. The game's name comes from the pieces' resemblance to Venetian Carnival masks known as domini, which were white with black spots.
That's the bones part. But what's evocative about August, other than indicating the month when Malcolm left home? For me, as for many theatergoers, August means August Wilson, and it just so happens that Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the Wilson play that Lincoln Center Theater did earlier this year, also had dominoes, though one of the participants in the match, Bynum Walker, is more interested in singing than in playing. It also so happens that the most famous speech in the play involves bones. So 2009 should be remembered not only as LCT's year for programming a Domino Duo but also as the year when bones, of all kinds, rose again.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.