A Hard Hit

Review of Playing the Assassin at Hartford’s TheaterWorks

Not often do the words “profound” and “football” find their way into the same sentence. Yet TheaterWorks’ current production of David Robson’s Playing the Assassin, directed by Joe Brancato, brings to light profoundly searching questions about football and the other contact sports so central to much of American entertainment and big business. In the context of a gripping conflict between two men, the play asks, in the words of one of its characters, why “seeing grown men hurt each other” makes people “happy,” and what that means for NFL professionals, trained and encouraged to hit as hard as they can, but excoriated and ostracized if they cause serious injury.

As Robson tells us in the program notes, the play was inspired by an obituary headline: “Jack Tatum, Whose Tackle Paralyzed Player, Dies at 61.” In 1978, Tatum, playing for the Oakland Raiders, hit wide receiver Darryl Stingley, of the New England Patriots, so hard that Stingley was paralyzed from the neck down. In Playing the Assassin, Robson creates a similar situation and asks us to decide whose life was most damaged. The answer, we learn, is as complex as the human heart.

Lewis (Garrett Lee Hendricks) and Frank Baker (Ezra Knight)

Lewis (Garrett Lee Hendricks) and Frank Baker (Ezra Knight)

Frank Baker (the extraordinary Ezra Knight), a former NFL safety once known as the most dangerous defensive player in the league, meets in a hotel room with a CBS executive named Lewis (the sharp and shape-shifting Garrett Lee Hendricks) to prepare for a publicity stunt. Lewis has brokered a reunion, to be aired before the Super Bowl, between Baker and Lyle Turner, the player paralyzed by Baker’s tackle twenty years before. Their first encounter since the accident promises an up-tick in Super Bowl viewing numbers. “It’s a great human interest story,” says the smooth-talking Lewis.

Baker, however, has well-founded doubts. Years of interviews have taught him that after the initial gush over his NFL fame, the real question is always “So how do you feel about that guy you paralyzed?” Baker knows his legacy will be that he stepped over the invisible line (as he calls it) between doing what one is trained to do and perpetrating an act of violence. “Show me the line,” Baker insists, “Show me the line!” —his defiance barely masking twenty years of torment about the incident.

Lewis remains business-like for as long as he can, but soon (under the pressure, we assume, of Baker’s good-natured bullying and angry obstinance) his nerves begin to fray. In a series of surprises that have audiences audibly gasping, the stakes rise, masks drop, and the supposed pre-interview chat, with its multiple revelations, nearly veers into Greek drama.

If perhaps the number of revelations asks of us just a bit too much suspension of disbelief, Joe Brancato’s expert direction and the remarkable performances of Knight and Hendricks enable the production to glide over our doubts. Brancato controls the pacing (at a taut 82 minutes) so that, as the characters alternate trust and distrust, their lies and truths are sharply delineated. The tension relaxes only in brief humorous moments before tightening again. A director’s hand should be invisible, and Brancato’s is; only afterwards, when we sit back in our chairs for the first time, do we realize his powerful skill.

Knight and Hendricks execute this pacing to perfection. Knight, in the showier role of Baker, creates a bull of a man who uses his bulk to entertain, manipulate, intimidate, and threaten. At the same time, Knight has the difficult task of embodying someone at once strong and broken. For all his energy, Baker describes himself as “a walking Walgreens.” Knight, playing every emotional key from jocular to murderous, is astounding in making us feel both the danger and the damage.

Hendricks matches Knight in physical and emotional virtuosity, providing the perfect counterpart. Slim where Baker is bulky, graceful where Baker is rambunctious, Lewis knows exactly what moves to make in order to close the deal—until he doesn’t. Hendricks’ Lewis has to contain many layers, and to keep the audience unaware of most of them until late in the action. A few of the script’s most startling moments verge on melodrama, but Hendricks keeps the character of Lewis believable and quietly charismatic.

Set designer Brian Prather deserves special praise for creating a hotel room that is at once realistically tony, increasingly cage-like, and ultimately red-hot when long-held rage is finally released. In many respects, this two-hander is perfect for TheaterWorks and the intimate space enables the audience to see every small object along with every muscle twitch and eye movement. Playing the Assassin delivers expert and compelling theater that deserves to be experienced more than once.

With its strong performances, timely themes, and taut, physical production, Playing the Assassin is a winner!

Playing the Assassin
By David Robson
Directed by Joe Brancato

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Charlotte Palmer-Lane; Lighting Design: Ed McCarthy; Sound Design: Emily Auciello; Fight Choreographer: Ron Piretti; Production Manager: C. Nikki Mills; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

TheaterWorks, March 21-April 26, 2015