If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan

“Playing the Assassin” at TheaterWorks in Hartford

Football fans who don’t think the contemporary theatre has much to offer them might check out the new play currently on stage at TheaterWorks in Hartford. David Robson’s “Playing the Assassin” offers exemplary acting and plenty of dramatic jolts for the seasoned theatergoer as well as a slice of the NFL world that might interest discriminating sports fans.

“Playing the Assassin” is Robson’s timely play about Frank Baker, a former NFL great nicknamed “Assassin”, who has lived with the repercussions of one disastrous tackle he made that resulted in serious injury to a fellow player. As the drama opens, Frank (an explosive Ezra Knight) is about to be interviewed by Lewis (Garrett Lee Hendricks) a young TV executive from CBS. Lewis is planning a special event to be televised prior to the Super Bowl where Frank and the player he injured are to be reunited. The payday is a big one for Frank who, labeled a “dirty player” since the incident, has never reaped the benefits of his glory days which include a Super Bowl ring. What starts as a jovial give and take between the men builds to a series of clashes and surprising revelations where motivations on each side are questioned.

The play, performed without intermission and directed at a brisk 82 minutes by Joe Brancato, is inspired by an actual sports incident. In 1978, Oakland Raider Jack Tatum hit New England Patriots wide receiver Daryl Stingley so hard that he ended up in a wheelchair. Although no foul was called, strict new regulations were put into place. “Playing the Assassin” focuses more on a personal story than the bigger picture about the culture of football. That theme might have made the play a better and stronger one, but what is onstage is still fairly compelling and this two-hander is lucky that both actors are more than up to the task.

Fuming with resentment with a volcanic temper to match, Knight makes Frank’s aggression all too real. In a performance that is, by turns, frightening, hair-raising and bleakly funny, Knight also digs deep to show us the vulnerability beneath the stallion. In the far less showy role, Hendricks is nonetheless excellent and a strong foil for Knight. His character ultimately reveals layers of discovery that shouldn’t and won’t be revealed here. Suffice it to say, however, that Lewis is not really all that he seems and though there is a level of predictability and melodrama about his revelations, they still work under the circumstances. What counts most here are the performances and they are superb. Both men starred in the play’s premiere last fall at the Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Point, New York and the history shows. Their chemistry together is electric.

Brian Prather’s generic hotel room setting gets all the details right with its recessed lighting and familiar artwork and Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s costuming does a fine job defining these two very different men. I also applaud fight choreographer Ron Piretti for staging some rather realistic combat in a space as intimate as the Hartford venue. It looks like another winner for TheaterWorks with the audience immediately on its feet at curtain the night I attended. Touchdown!

“Playing the Assassin” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through April 26, 2015. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 860.527.7838 or visit: ww.theaterworkshartford.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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