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BWW Reviews: PLAYING THE ASSASSIN at TheaterWorks

Impassioned and topical, David Robson's new play at TheaterWorks in Hartford offers a gripping confrontation between two men: one a former football legend, the other a generation younger.

The playwright has written a speculative riff, based on the real tragedy in a pre-season Patriots football game in 1978 when Darryl Stingley was permanently paralyzed by a legal hit delivered by Jack Tatum. The two men never spoke again. Robson's play, which has been revised, refined, and retitled over three prior productions, grew out of his imagining a conversation between two men whose lives are both inextricably linked and irretrievably damaged by a gridiron collision.

Actor Ezra Knight brings Shakespearean chops to the role of Frank Baker, whose identity is complex. Powerfully built, he wears a Super Bowl ring, and prowls the upscale hotel room set like a caged tiger, but he's diabetic and uses a cane. Years back, a publisher dubbed him 'The Assassin' and the name stuck. We learn his wife called him 'The Invisible Man,' and he calls himself a 'walking Walgreens.' Knight has a knack for taking lines off the page and making them sound spontaneous and hip. He's got presence to burn, and it's easy to buy that he was a dangerous asset on defense back in the day.

Facing off against this titan is Garrett Lee Hendricks, whose righteousness in this role is reminiscent of the young Sidney Poitier. He's set up this meeting as a pre-interview for a Super Bowl feature he's trying to engineer, where--he hopes--Baker will apologize directly to Lyle Turner, the man he paralyzed. He's got to convince Baker, inherently defensive, suspicious, and wounded, to sign the contract which spells out his obligations in the upcoming interview, and his pay. He's got plenty of skin in the game, himself.

Over the intermissionless 85 minutes the two men grapple with one another, literally and figuratively. They test each other, they manipulate, they lie. Each puts the other through an ordeal, and you couldn't ask for more committed performances.

The play raises a handful of hard, resonant, timely questions: Is football just plain too violent to continue to hold center stage in our culture? Are perpetrators as trapped by trauma as victims? As worthy of our compassion? Does intention matter? Is it true, as Baker says, that 'The NFL is where the Black man goes today to get his piece of the American Dream?' How do we own up to our actions? What does it mean to be a man?

Once again, TheaterWorks has a win here, with its favorite kind of play: a small cast, intense, contemporary character study. Kudos to Director Joe Brancato, who first directed this version of the text at Penguin Rep in Stony Point, NY, where he is the founding artistic director. The show runs through April 26.

Photo credit: Lenny Nagler

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