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Violence on the Field Reflected on the Stage

The National Football League has plenty to worry about just now, and it isn’t going to concern itself with an 85-minute, two-character play at a small barn theater in Rockland County. But football executives, fans, coaches and players at all levels would be well-advised to see — and ponder — David Robson’s “Playing the Assassin,” the final offering of the season at Penguin Rep Theater.

With Ezra Knight delivering a powerhouse performance as a retired, once brutally effective Oakland Raiders safety, “Playing the Assassin” examines the violence that football demands on the field, not the savagery players inflict at home. But it is hard to escape the conclusions that these are one and the same, and that some of the responsibility must be borne by those of us who make professional football the country’s most popular sport — who cheer as grown men try to hurt one another.

At the core of Mr. Robson’s drama is an event whose outlines will be familiar to those who remember what happened on Aug. 12, 1978, in the preseason game between the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots: Jack Tatum’s legal but ferocious hit put New England’s Darryl Stingley in a wheelchair for life. (Mr. Stingley died in 2007.)

The star Raider in “Playing the Assassin” is called Frank Baker, and 20 years after the game in which he crushed his opponent’s spine — and permanently altered the meaning of his career — he is meeting with a television producer, Lewis, who wants to arrange a joint appearance for broadcast before the Super Bowl.

Garrett Lee Hendricks’s cool, cagey Lewis makes the perfect foil for Mr. Knight’s big, blustery Frank, as they circle each other in Brian Prather’s sleek hotel room setting. (Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s costumes and Emily Auciello’s sound design are also first-rate.)

What at first seems to be strictly a business transaction — Frank wants to get more money out of the network, and Lewis wants a guarantee that Frank will issue a belated, headline-generating public apology to his victim — turns into an impassioned confrontation in which both men drop their facades to reveal the seething bitterness within.

The story is not without its contrivances. But Mr. Robson’s compelling dialogue and forceful characters provide so much theatrical energy that once the play takes off, no one in the audience will quibble about its improbabilities. Credit must also go to the incisive direction of Joe Brancato, the Penguin’s artistic director, and the crackling performances he has elicited from the two actors. When Frank says he likes to mess people up — the four-letter word he uses is not “mess” — Mr. Knight’s steely delivery leaves no doubt that he’s serious. And when the younger and much smaller Lewis unaccountably challenges Frank to demonstrate his tackling technique, Mr. Hendricks lights the stage with his hostility and bravado.

The fight that ensues, choreographed by Christopher Plummer and lighted by Ed McCarthy, is gut-wrenching. But so are the questions this play raises, not just about the dangers of professional sports in general and the ethos of football in particular, but about the way Americans are conditioned to view manhood. What is it we really admire in our sports heroes? Lewis tells Frank he was feared on the field; Frank calls it respect, not fear. What’s more, he was just doing his job when he slammed into opposing players, and the day he made a man a paraplegic, he broke no rules. Does he need to apologize for doing a job, the job his team, the league and the fans all expected of him?

Mr. Robson makes sure that this is not just an open-and-shut condemnation of the tough guys in football. Frank may have been a ruthless player, but the game has taken its toll on his body, too. And his psyche is far from untouched, although he seems unrepentant. “All is fair in love, war and football,” he says.

Mr. Tatum, who died in 2010, said something similar in his 1980 memoir, “They Call Me Assassin,” in which he wrote, “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.” Effective theater hits hard, too, and “Playing the Assassin” takes a good, solid shot at professional football while telling a gripping story. Touchdown.

Article from The New York Times; Published September 26, 2014

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