Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company teams up with the popular Ambler company Act II Playhouse to present the world premiere of local playwright David Robson’s drama Assassin.
Set entirely in a Chicago hotel room somewhere in the vicinity of the city’s iconic elevated train, the drama is inspired by one of the most tragic plays in the history of the National Football League. During a pre-season game in 1978, Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum—nicknamed “The Assassin” for the brutal nature of his play—collided with New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley as the latter reached for a pass. It wasn’t the most vicious tackle in football history, nor was it deemed to be an illegal hit (it would be under today’s rules), but the impact fractured two of Stingley’s vertebrae. As the crowd cheered, he lay immobile on the field and, in fact, would never move again. He was a quadriplegic for the remainder of his life.
Assassin is set in the present day, and despite the passage of time and an illustrious career, Frank—played by Brian Anthony Wilson and clearly based on Tatum—still feels defined by the incident. When CBS offers him $25,000 for a post-Super Bowl interview, provided he can get Lyle Turner (the Stingley character, who is discussed but never seen) to join him, Frank jumps at the opportunity. In an effort to convince Turner to participate, Frank has flown to Chicago for a meeting. Instead of a reunion with the paralyzed player, however, Frank is confronted in the hotel room by Turner’s attorney, Lewis (Dwayne A. Thomas). His client will participate in the interview, Lewis tells him, but only if Frank signs a contract stipulating certain demands. It is the negotiation between the two that makes up the meat of Robson’s inconsistent, 90-minute play.
By far the most interesting scenes in Assassin are when Robson examines the limited shelf life of professional athletes and the toll football takes on its players’ bodies. Despite walking with a pronounced limp, Frank insists he has no regrets from his decade in the sport. Calling the fans and owners hypocrites for celebrating football’s ferocity while simultaneously wringing their hands about its violence, he recalls how they “were cheering me after I hit Lyle Turner.” And while he complains that he’s been unfairly vilified for paralyzing his opponent, Frank takes pride in his status as “the league badass.” Robson’s examination of the connection between football’s violence and the sport’s extraordinary popularity is a ripe subject for a play, but Assassin takes an unwelcome turn about halfway through when Lewis reveals the true nature of his relationship with his client. Instead, Robson gives us a more personal story about Frank’s quest for redemption versus Lewis’ desire to exact some measure of justice for Turner.
In his InterAct debut as a director, Seth Reichgott—who is better known as an award-winning actor—elicits effective though far-from-spectacular performances from Wilson and Thomas, but the action often feels stilted. Reichgott does his best to devise some stage business, and a scene in which Frank teaches Wayne how to tackle adds some life to the proceedings, but the lack of action makes the play feel too verbose.
Assassin is not uninteresting, but it’s never as emotionally powerful as it should be. Unlike most plays, however, both the material and its staging have an opportunity to evolve and perhaps improve over time. Instead of concluding at the end of its run at the Adrienne, the production moves to Act II in Ambler, where the company’s tiny theater could result in a more intimate—and hopefully more affecting—experience.
Through Feb. 10. $28-$35. The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. 215.568.8079. interacttheatre.org