I feel I should preface this review with the disclosure that I am not a sports fan, never have been. So, it was with curiosity and trepidation that I signed on to review this InterAct/Act II joint premiere of David Robson’s new play. Having finished its run at InterAct, ASSASSIN has now settled into the Ambler Playhouse until March 17th. Inspired by actual events, Robson (of Delaware) has fashioned an interesting 90 minute character study that really holds the viewer’s attention. Actually, it sort of grabs you by the throat and tosses you around…
The occurrence that set Robson’s pen in motion happened during an exhibition game in 1978 between the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots. During this game, Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was leaping to catch a pass when Jack Tatum, an Oakland defensive back, slammed him. Hard. The play was legal at that time and no penalty was called, but Stingley was paralyzed from the chest down. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and died in 2007 from complications brought on by his condition. (He lived longer than most in that situation. The average is 6—10 years). Tatum suffered from diabetes and heart disease, passing away in 2010. The two men never met for any kind of face-to-face confrontation or reconciliation. Stingley pulled out of a joint TV interview in 1996 when he learned Tatum was promoting a book. Robson’s play deals with a character similar to Tatum coming to Chicago to meet with his former opponent to broker a lucrative post Super Bowl appearance.
Upon entering the intimate Act II space, one sees a suitably bland hotel room set brilliantly created by Dirk Durossette—down to the last detail, including a fire escape map on the back of the door. Framed by the steel support beams of the Chicago elevated train, one immediately gets the sense that the place is just on the edge of seedy. 70s gridiron stars didn’t rake in nearly as much as their current day counterparts. A football game is playing on the room’s TV as the house lights fade and Frank Lucas, the “Assassin,” emerges from the room’s bathroom. Frank is a lot older now; he has limp due to losing a limb to diabetes, and (we soon find out) a drinking problem. Brian Anthony Wilson is perfect for the role. A large man with a commanding stage presence, one can easily imagine him roaring down a football field ready to pummel an opponent. I have seen Wilson in several other productions and he is a wonderful actor. This role demands a lot of him; he is on an emotional roller coaster for the entire length of the performance. And his character has a lot to say as he ricochets from his gridiron glory days to his hopes for this interview to come to pass. Frank shows no remorse for what happened—“I was just doing my job”—yet there is an underlying sense of demons. He doesn’t understand why he is villianized. He defends his actions by saying people want to see this kind of rough play. “Society needs a release.” Wilson is riveting to watch as he lays this man bare before us.
Instead of the expected appearance of Lyle when Frank responds to the knock on his door, in comes Lewis—Lyle’s attorney. Lewis is in his mid-30s and is as buttoned down as they come; it is clear from the get-go that he does not like Frank. He has come with a contract that Frank must agree to before Lyle will do the TV appearance. And as things progress we find out other surprises about this young man. Dwayne A. Thomas is a new face to the Philly theatre scene, but I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of him. He quite ably holds his own with Wilson, giving a fully realized and nuanced performance. Both men bravely explore dark emotions in this charged meeting. They have been living with these characters for almost 3 months now and they seem to be continuing to find new depths.
I won’t delve into the plot any further so as not to spoil the experience for you. Director Seth Reichgott has created a solid, thought-provoking production. Football may be the plot device, but the play is really an investigation of how we view our own history—and, at times revise it. The language is raw, like the game Frank played. The two men engage in battle, with Lewis eventually coming down to Frank’s level of behavior after each has consumed several drinks. There are some odd contradictions in the script, however. Frank really wants this interview to happen, yet he keeps stalling in getting down to actually discussing the particulars with Lewis. As things progress he shows more and more desperation, but it is never revealed fully what is at stake for him—other than a 25K payoff. He doesn’t seem to want to publicly apologize to Lyle, nor does he see any wrongdoing in his actions. Is it really all about the money, as Frank says at one point? He also talks about living long enough to be forgotten—and that may be the crux of the problem for him. Is it that Frank Lucas does not want to be forgotten? That was the one weakness I saw in Robson’s script.
The technical work was well executed, bringing verisimilitude to the production. James Leitner’s lighting design evokes the atmosphere of a dingy hotel room, while the soundscape provided by Ashley Turner was suitably NFL-ish. Costumes are by Maggie Baker (well done) and Avista Custom Theatrical Services supplied the necessary hotel room accoutrements.
Sports aside, ASSASSIN is an intriguing play. As we deal with so much violence throughout all areas of this country, Robson adds to the debate by asking what professional sports’ role is in forming young people’s attitudes towards violence. ASSASSIN raises more questions than it answers, which is the purpose of drama in my mind. Some may find the language offensive, but the play is well worth seeing. And if it gets some jocks to check out live theatre, that’s a big plus in my book.
by David Robson
Directed by Seth Reichgott
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002
Feb.19—Mar. 17, 2013