Right now and running through March 17th at Act II Playhouse is the World Premiere of Assassin, a new play by David Robson. A co-production with InterAct Theatre Company, the play is an intense, fictionalized drama drawn from true events. In 1978 Jack Tatum, a defensive back for the Oakland Raiders (nicknamed the “Assassin”) tackled Darryl Stingley, a wide receiver for the New England Patriots and rendered him paralyzed for life. The two men never met nor reconciled. And even after Tatum wrote an autobiography in 1980, he never apologized for his actions. With all the focus on head and spinal injuries in the world of sports today, this play is more relevant than ever.
The 80 minute drama with no intermission takes place thirty years after the event that destroyed the wide receiver’s career. The former defensive back, now named “Frank” is trying to meet with the man whose career he ended. Frank hopes to make amends by sharing in a deal where both men will appear after the Super Bowl together on live TV for $25,000 apiece. But in his way stands Lewis, a young attorney for the injured player who is now dying.
The play holds the viewer captive as it unravels secret after secret. There is plenty of meat in this story for gifted actors to tear into – and both Brian Anthony Wilson and Dwayne A. Thomas rip into it like two lions stripping a carcass. Kudos must go to director Seth Reichgott for perfectly casting this piece. If Mr. Wilson doesn’t look like an ex-football player I don’t know who would. And Mr. Thomas perfectly embodies the educated, uptight attorney. But beyond physical endowments, what makes the play roar like a train out of control is the terrific performances.
As Frank, Mr. Wilson walks with a limp (from a prosthetic leg due to diabetes) proceeds to get drunk (though he purports to not be a drinker) and after trying every angle of persuasion, finally resorts to physical violence to achieve his goal. All the while, though Frank is not a sympathetic character, we see and feel his desperation and empathize with his plight. This is no small feat. For much of the play Frank is like a mad bull let out of his pen and we could easily detest him. But though we are satisfied with the final outcome, we never really hate Frank, only pity him. This is due to Brian Anthony Wilson’s ability to completely inhabit a character and make him real for us.
So, as physical as Frank’s character is, Lewis is the antithesis. Lewis’s anger is completely internalized. He tries to win his way with his argument, with his words and then finally with his private revelations. Mr. Thomas is extremely moving as the young attorney with hidden motives. As the play progresses, he must dig deeper and deeper into the recesses of his painful past and allow the audience to share in his feelings. And he does just that – beautifully.
I have only two teeny, tiny caveats to this production. Since the intensity is quite electrifying – I would have enjoyed a few more breaks in that intensity. (I’ve always felt that you can’t really enjoy the peaks if you don’t have the valleys.) And in the final moment, I would have liked to see Lewis walk out the door and not just freeze. I don’t know if this was a writer’s or director’s decision, but I as an audience member would have felt more satisfied with the finality of Lewis’s action.
But don’t get me wrong, these are minor concerns and needless to say – “Assassin” is a gripping piece of theatre – wonderfully crafted and beautifully acted. Don’t miss it! For tickets call 215-654-0200 or long onto Act II’s website at www.act2.org.
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