As both a theater lover and a sports fan, I was looking forward to TheaterWorks Playing the Assassin, a new play by David Robson running through April 26.
The subject matter is both familiar and current: the violence in professional football and the physical risks to players. Certainly, with the growing research on concussions, former player lawsuits, and even young promising professionals quitting the sport due to the risks, this is a subject that is very current.
The basis of the plot would also be familiar to any fan of the sport. It recalls the incident in the 1978 preseason game when Oakland Raider Jack Tatum hit New England Patriots wide receiver Daryl Stingley so hard that he was a quadriplegic.
In Playing the Assassin we have retired NFL safety Frank Baker, who was dubbed “the assassin” for his playing style, but his post football life has been marred by the memory of his hit on a young receiver that put him in a wheelchair. Now he is approached to do a pre-superbowl interview that will include Turner, the man he hit.
The play is set in a middle-of-the road hotel room during a playoff game when the young TV assistant producer Lewis comes to conduct a pre-interview with Frank. He’s also there to get him to sign a contract.
It is this part of Robson’s play that is most problematic. The idea of Baker discussing and considering his past and how it has crippled him almost as much as it crippled Turner would be fascinating.
Instead, Robson has resorted to plot turns that are contrived at best and totally unbelievable at their worst. Let us just say, that all is not exactly what it seems to be.
Robson has drawn heavily on the Tatum -Stingley story: the nature of the hit and the preseason game, the aftermath, the fact that the two men never really communicated, the influence on Tatum’s life and even the fact that HBO attempted to bring the men together for a show at the 25th anniversary of the hit but Stingley refused because he thought it was a publicity gimmick to promote Tatum’s book, Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum. Stingley died in 2007; Tatum died in 2010. Ironically, Tatum had both legs amputated below the knee due to a staph infection in his left leg and an arterial blockage in his right.
When an author tries to create an imaginary event that so closely parallels a real event, there are a number of challenges. At its best, it can illuminate the emotions and feelings that may or may not be true. But it can also allow the author to skimp on character development. It can be too easy to assume the audience will understand and add details from its memory of the events, rather than actually exploring the subject.
This is the problem with Playing the Assassin, Robson draws on the audience’s collective understanding of the violence of football and our assumptions about the men who play it. Then he adds plots twists and turns that seem both preposterous and unmotivated.
Ezra Knight plays Frank Baker as a man who has been crippled in many ways by the infamous hit — which incidentally in both this case and Tatum’s was an unpenalized, perfectly legal hit. The injury was just bad luck. Knight shows the bravura of the man — the athlete who is still proud of his physical prowess as well as hinting at the physical pain that is his legacy from the game. He resents that he has not had the opportunities or rewards — despite remarkable career statistics, he is not in the Hall of Fame and has never been given the opportunity to coach — all due to “the hit.” Yet he is also proud of his toughness. The problem is that even Knight cannot make the ending seem justified or understandable.
Garrett Lee Hendricks plays the younger Lewis — seemingly cool and self-assured; you later find that it is all surface. Hendricks has the difficult task of making the multiple turns in the plot seem plausible and he does a good job.
Director Joe Brancato has skillfully kept the pace moving and the dynamics between the two men evolving. The set by Brian Prather has the bland look of any chain hotel. I still have not quite figured out why at times the lighting changes to red but I assume that Brancato and lighting director Ed McCarthy had a reason that I have yet to determine.
If you can suspend your disbelief, Playing the Assassin will keep your interested if only to learn what is really going on. But if you like your plays to seem more plausible, this one will annoy you.
Playing the Assassin is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Harford through April 26. For tickets, call 860-527-7838; for information visit theaterworkshartford.org.
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