Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Robson's play is inspired by the true story of Jack Tatum, an NFL player of the 1970s who was known as "The Assassin" because if he hit you, he took you out. He knocked several opponents unconscious. His most notorious hit came during a 1978 preseason game when Tatum, playing for the Oakland Raiders, tackled New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley so hard that Stingley was left permanently paralyzed from the chest down. Stingley eventually forgave Tatum, but Tatum refused to apologize, saying that the hit was legal (at the time) and that he was just doing his job. The two never spoke; Stingley died in 2007, Tatum in 2010.
Robson sets Assassin in a present-day Chicago hotel room, designed by Dirk Durossette with a sadly authentic blandness. Frank Lucas, the "Assassin" of the title, has agreed to appear alongside Lyle Turner, the man he crippled, in a live post-Super Bowl interview on CBS. But before the contracts can be finalized, the two men have agreed to meet to go over their issues. Frank (Brian Anthony Wilson) is still large and imposing, but in the decades since he retired from the NFL, he's lost a stepliterally. He limps across the room on an artificial leg, having lost his right leg to diabetes that he still can't control (at one point he recklessly scarfs down a candy bar, saying "one can't kill me"). Frank is anxious about what he'll say to Turnerand he's shocked when the man who turns up at his door isn't Turner but Turner's young attorney Lewis (Dwayne A. Thomas). (Using the similar-sounding names "Lewis" and "Lucas" for his two characters is one of Robson's rare careless missteps.)
Frank is no dumb jockhe's proud of his career ("We serve a purposewe make people happy") and unrepentant about his reputation. "Better to be feared than fearful," he says, noting that he hates being treated "like I'm a Nazi or somethinglike I committed a crime." He presents a jovial front, trying to ingratiate himself with the impeccably dressed stranger who has appeared at his door. But Lewis is all business, stiff-backed and unsmiling. He claims he's not a football fan, saying the civil rights pioneers of the 1960s are his real heroesbut Frank rebuts that attitude, saying that NFL players did more to further racial equality than Rosa Parks ever did. The arguments continue, and eventually the clash turns from an intellectual one to a physical one. Lewis' haughty disdain breaks down, stripping him of his jacket, his tie, and his dignity. And we learn that the cold, clinical Lewis actually has a hidden connection to both players.
The plot machinery of Assassin is sometimes a little too creakyFrank says he keeps asking questions of Lewis to learn more about him, but the insincere questions seem more like a plot device to lengthen the play, which only runs 80 minutes. And, while the character names have changed from real life, the players' careers are still set in the 1970s, which seems like a mistake; the events should have been moved to a later decade. Frank seems too young to have played in the NFL back then, and Lewis seems too young to call Terry Bradshaw his favorite player (or to even know who Bradshaw is).
But the speeches are smart, and playwright Robson wisely never takes sides; each man is convincing. The drama gets heated without getting histrionic, with a number of unexpected twists. Director Seth Reichgott keeps the play moving speedily, with barely a pause for breath, yet allows each character to be sympathetic. And it's the complicated, combustible chemistry between its two stars that makes Assassin so riveting. Wilson plays Frank as a tough mountain of a man who is determined not to be bested, but lets his guard down enough to let us see his weaknesses. And as Lewis, Thomas goes through several remarkable transformations while never losing sight of his purpose in business or in life.
So you don't care about football? Don't know Shula from Shinola? You'll love Assassin anyway.
Assassin is a co-production of InterAct Theatre Company and Act II Playhouse. It runs through February 10, 2013, at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia (tickets at www.InterActTheatre.org), and February 18 through March 17, 2013 at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania (tickets at www.Act2.org).
Yet, despite its inconsistency, An Ideal Husband is an entertaining piece, and director Malcolm Black's production holds the audience's interest throughout. It looks great (thanks to Robert Andrew Kovach's stately sets and Colleen Grady's luxurious costumes), and it has two strong lead performances. As Sir Robert, a respected government official who faces ruin when he's blackmailed over a financial misdeed, Ian Merrill Peakes is a pleasure to watch as he devolves from strutting confidence to stuttering, fidgeting anxiety. And Luigi Sottile has plenty of charm (and wonderful comic timing) as Sir Robert's foppish best friend Lord Goring, who gets most of Wilde's funniest lines.
But the women don't fare as well. Kate Fahrner's take on the villainous Mrs. Cheveley seems halfhearted, too genteel and cartoonish to be a serious threat to Sir Robert. As Sir Robert's sister, who gets romanced by Lord Goring in a waste-of-time subplot, Lynnia Shanley makes almost no impression. Jennie Eisenhower is fine as Sir Robert's wife, although the alternately sweet and outraged character doesn't give her much to work with (and she's saddled with a couple of melodramatic speeches that test the audience's sympathy).
The political machinations of An Ideal Husband are too contrived, and they get resolved too tidily to be completely satisfying. The play runs nearly three hours, and feels it; Wilde has a hard time ending scenes, adding speeches that comment on the action or debates about the ethics of what we've just seen. Yet, even though the dramatic form may seem as old-fashioned as the costumes, Wilde's tart-tongued attitude toward society's excesses still seems modern and engaging, and it helps make the Walnut's An Ideal Husband worthwhile.
When his wife tells him that the news of his indiscretion has killed her love for him, Sir Robert tells her that she should love him "faults and all." An Ideal Husband may not be ideal, but with its droll humor and the Walnut's light yet respectful production, you'll enjoy it, faults and all.
An Ideal Husband runs through March 3, 2013, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 $85, with premium tickets available for $175, and are available online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.
The Arden has never done a Beckett show in its twenty-five year history, and the work of the master of abstract, experimental theatre seems an odd fit for a theatre that specializes in more accessible work. But even if you're not a fan of the theatre of the absurd, there's plenty to appreciate in Endgame if you know where to look. The problem is that the Arden's Endgame, directed by Edward Sobel, has changed the trappings surrounding Beckett's words too much, making it harder for the audience to figure it all out.
Beckett's stage directions are notoriously specific, and Beckett and his heirs have been known to come down harshly on productions that tamper with the playwright's instructions. The script for Endgame says that the play takes place in a "bare interior [with] two small windows, curtains drawn." But set designer Kevin Depinet takes the show's post-apocalyptic theme and expands on it. So the Arden's Endgame is set amongst twisted ventilation ducts, clear plastic sheeting and industrial-sized drums, with the remnants of an automobile visible in the background. This Endgame doesn't just suggest what life is like after the bomb drops, it shows it to us. (There are other liberties taken too, with clothing and props.)
Such changes normally don't bother me much, but here they obfuscate the play's meaning. When the overbearing tyrant Hamm tells his servant Clov to go to the window and look at the sea, there are no windows to look out, so Clov mounts a ladder and looks into the openings of the ducts instead. What's there to see? Just more metal. Similarly, when Hamm (who is blind) asks to be moved under the window because "I want to feel the light on my face," he gets moved under a duct instead. Is that Beckett's vision, or the director's? It's hard for newcomers to the play to tell.
This Endgame isn't without its pleasures. Scott Greer and James Ijames, two of the city's most persuasive actors, earn a lot of laughs as Hamm (who sits in a makeshift wheelchair, unable to walk) and Clov (who wears leg braces, unable to sit down). Greer commands the stage despite barely moving, while Ijames grows more and more comically disgusted with each ridiculous, menial task he is forced to perform. And it's nice to see each character slowly come to realize that, in this new landscape, their master-servant relationship has changed drastically. But the production's flashy excesses never mesh with the play's quiet, contemplative, deliberately repetitive nature. Instead of pondering your place in the world, you may end up wondering what make and model that car is.
All the flourishes added to this production look great, but they mean that Endgame, which has always walked a fine line between profundity and absurdity, makes even less sense than usual.
Endgame runs through March 10, 2013, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $36 to $48 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.