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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Playing the Assassin
TheaterWorks

Also see Fred's review of The Caucasian Chalk Circle


Garrett Lee Hendricks and Ezra Knight
Playing the Assassin, at Hartford's TheaterWorks through April 26th, accelerates to a dynamic crescendo of performance two-thirds of the way through its 85 minutes of running time. Playwright David Robson moves from reality to high drama as he addresses, through content, the implications of violence in the National Football League.

The text is drawn from events of a pre-season NFL game when Jack Tatum, an Oakland Raiders player known for his bone-crushing hits, slammed into New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley. Stingley was instantly paralyzed and remained so, confined to a wheelchair, until he died eight years ago. These men never had a conversation face-to-face about that moment in time.

Robson introduces the Tatum persona in the character of Frank Baker (Ezra Knight). The two-hander begins in a motel room as CBS segment producer Lewis (Garrett Lee Hendricks) is prepping Baker for an on-air appearance. This will occur just before the upcoming Super Bowl. Lewis is young, smooth and hopeful that Frank will make an apology of sorts to and for Lyle Turner, the man who has spent 20 years incapacitated since Baker hit him.

Joe Brancato directs the TheaterWorks presentation and he worked with the same actors when Playing the Assassin had its world premiere at the Penguin Rep Theater in Stony Point, New York, this past September. Brian Prather's design of a hotel room includes plenty of available food and snacks, some comfortable looking furniture, and a few pieces of art work.

Baker, sometimes utilizing his cane, is still brutish, loud, self-centered, and intending to be paid well for his appearance. He very much wishes he were still on the field and able to do what he did—pound his opponents. Lewis's character is a guise for his actual self (this sounds cryptic but any further explication reveals too much) and he challenges Baker to demonstrate just what it is to tackle someone. Lewis says, "I want you to put me in his shoes." Fight choreographer Ron Piretti assists as Frank pummels Lewis into a nearby wall. This is a quaking sequence. Baker, in response to Lewis's advisory that Frank terrified the opposition, notes that this was part of the game: the idea is to obey rules but execute accordingly. Thus, one must infer that Baker felt his job description included an early line of Robson's dialogue: "All is fair in love, war, and football."

We now live in a time when injuries, both to the body and mind, incurred by those who play football have been identified as life-debilitating. When 24-year-old San Francisco 49ers star linebacker Chris Borland announced his retirement a couple of weeks ago, he said, "I'm concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it's too late ... There are a lot of unknowns. I can't claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don't want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise." Hence, Borland passes on millions of dollars and bright lights shining upon him. He has watched as those several or many years older than he have either compromised existence or early demise.

Still, Frank Baker, and the man for whom he stands in, Jack Tatum, are performing as dictated. Those fearful of the dangers of this game should not be on the field. Looming, however, is a the far-reaching possibility that perhaps the essence of football is impossibly hurtful to humans. The sport remains wildly popular and fans of high school, college, and professional football flock to stadiums.

Playing the Assassin features two impassioned, electric performances. These men have been on stage, together, for a while. Their chemistry within the confines of the room is exemplary. Robson writes a lengthy expository section which is necessary. Some 55 minutes into the show, the author injects material which spins the latter portion into fifth gear; this is special. In all, the play is unsettling, agitating, and disturbing. It is also incisive live theater.

Playing the Assassin, at TheaterWorks in Hartford, continues through April 26th, 2015,. For tickets, call (860) 527-7838 or visit theaterworkshartford.org .


Photo: Lanny Nagler

- Fred Sokol



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