All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Playing the Assassin — Delaware Theatre Company

assassin -- interiorNothing is permitted to be cut-and-dried today.

Including accidents. They happen, but current custom insists someone be at fault or take blame. Remorse has become a requirement, apology a stipulation. Even when forced, unfelt, insincere, or given just to get rid of the people asking for it.

David Robson’s unceasingly provocative play, “Playing the Assassin,” makes one think about risk, accidents, blame, remorse, apology, and repercussion. Its subject matter is as fresh as today’s headlines and as eternal as Cain’s squabble with Abel. It takes a catastrophic situation, the injuring of one man by another during a routine play in a professional football game, and examines it from several perspectives and points of view. It is clear from programs notes by Robson, “Assassin” director Joe Brancato, who has staged the play three times, and Delaware Theatre Company artistic director Bud Martin that one is supposed to take a specific side in the drama Robson provides and Brancato mounts.

I say the compelling factor in Robson’s play is its argument can be examined from so many angles, most of which are excellently addressed by the two characters we see on stage. More from Robson’s notes than from his script, I gather that sports are on trial in “Assassins” and the roughness with which one man played his sport, football, and his defensive position, safety, is under question while the resulting lifelong crippling of another man skews one’s attitude in one direction or another. The dialectic and the different forces at work in forming a solid opinion resonate well throughout Robson’s piece, even if all involved in producing it want to lead to one conclusion..

Well, guess what? To my mind, Robson gave the man he intends to be his heavy all the marbles. Frank Baker, a 12-year player, record holder, and legend in the NFL, may seem cold and withholding and he did end the career of a colleague with one decisive blow, but he has all of the logic in his lines. He not only spells out a point of view. He presents points of fact. The other character, Lewis Morton, plays more on sentimentality and doing the gentlemanly thing, the politically correct act of the mo’, making the nice gesture even though it may be humiliating and have no genuine bearing in the situation at hand, let alone the way Frank really, and justifiably, feels.

The beauty of Robson’s play is you can entertain both sides. The give and take is so strong, each man, even the one with whom you, as an individual, tend most to disagree, has something of substance to stay, something you understand as valid. “Playing the Assassin” is more than a play about the way one over-in-a-second football play affected a number of lives — It actually bogs down when it dwells too much on that aspect. — it’s a play about the basics, a work that explores what can and can’t be controlled in the midst of a game or any other activity in which sudden calamity can ensue. It also delves into the nature of guilt, blame, and apology.  Modern politesse may insist on contrition that is not and shouldn’t have to be forthcoming. “Assassin” doesn’t draw a clear line marking where reality ends and sentimentality begins, but you see Robson piercing into the current societal need for everything to be neat, perfect, and harmless, even contests like football games that cannot guarantee to be any of the above, creeping in and making an impression. You also see him giving the character he deems the antagonist a fighting chance to explain himself.

Football is not played in the way it was when the play that inspired Robson’s opus, Jack Tatum’s gruesome tackle of Darryl Stingley in a 1978 Oakland Raiders-New England Patriots pre-season game, and suggestions are continually made to make the sport less susceptible to causing permanent injury, but one cannot get past the elemental truth that football is football, and violence, mostly unintended, is built into it. Commissions can look into how to reduce concussions and other routine result of force between moving objects, but accidental incidents like the one between Tatum and Stingley will continue to occur, and they have to be put into perspective, as the defender in “Playing the Assassins” succeeds in doing.

Frank Baker, the player who represents Tatum in Robson’s play, says violence is never intended. It’s part of the job. A safety, or any defender in the secondary, is supposed to stop a run in its tracks, just as he’s supposed to bat away the ball, intimidate receivers, and make an interception when possible. Robson assigns Frank the impressive number of 66 interceptions in his career, along with a few other extraordinarily favorable stats. Frank says further he never thought of himself or his opponent as an individual once he took the field. He was paid a handsome salary for putting a runner on the ground. He didn’t consider who the runner/receiver was or go into personal details. He was a machine playing his part. Dispassionately in terms of thinking in terms of anyone on the field being a human being. Quite passionately when it came to making moves that win games. Frank looked in his opponents’ eyes, saw when the ball was coming from that opponent’s perspective,, and pounced. He did what his coach, employer, fans, and football demand that he do, keep the ball from any getting further towards the goal than it is at the time of the catch. If that means giving a firm block that knocks the wind from an opponent’s lungs, so be it. It’s called football.

Lewis accuses Frank of having made a dirty play and never attempting to make amends for consigning another human, a colleague in the NFL, to helplessness in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Saying he is a writer and segment producer for CBS Sports, Lewis wants to affect a reconciliation between Frank and the player he hit, Lyle Morton, in a special program to air before the Super Bowl. This is television, so strings are attached. Ratings, already expected to be stratospheric for the Super Bowl, could become intergalactic if Frank would say he’s sorry and embrace chair-bound Lyle on national television. He has a contract that offers both Frank and Lyle and considerable payday if he agrees.

First the men must spar. The sparring is exciting. Not only does Robson bring out the right arguments for both the ex-player and the TV producer, they’re argument that touch the audience’s nerves. We’re in the fray. We’re taking sides. We’re rooting.

Involvement is immediate, and we can’t wait to hear more details.

And various kinds of details. We want more information about the exact play that ended Lyle’s career and sullied Frank’s reputation to the extent that for all of his records and Pro Bowl appearances, seven out of 12 years, he has not been elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton and is remembered primarily for paralyzing Lyle Morton than he is for being an Oakland Raiders stalwart and legendary overall defender on the gridiron. We want to hear more about Lyle. We want to learn more about how Lewis plans to conduct his interviews for the Super Bowl pre-show and if he is planning to put words in Frank’s mouth or let him talk to himself.

For all we want to know, we are never disappointed or dissatisfied. Brancato’s production for DTC is a theatrical Super Bowl in itself. It never lets up or lets you down (let alone turn around or desert you). The negotiation between Frank and Lewis remains at a fever pitch and often puts new spiral on the ball and impenetrable defense in the dialogue of both characters.

Robson’s play and Brancato’s staging benefit greatly from the two unstintingly luminous performances of Ezra Knight as Frank and Garrett Lee Hendricks as Lewis. Knight is nothing less than bravura, always keeping Frank immediate and on his game. This is a man to reckon with. He has verbal moves to match his physical prowess. He nobody’s fool, and he’s had enough to being hostage to one tackle against Lyle Morton 20 years before “Playing the Assassin” is set.

Hendricks has stature to match Knight’s magnitude. He first holds his professional and then his emotional ground against Frank’s constantly oncoming train. Hendricks gives Lewis both strength and vulnerability, each meted out to be visible at the appropriate time, which is sometimes simultaneous. Lewis has the commanding presence and voice that makes me want to alert casting directors that when it comes time for a biopic of Sidney Poitier (whose life is fascinating enough to chronicle), Hendricks is their man.

Knight and Hendricks endow the DTC with the excitement of a well-contested football game. Both men prime their characters to be formidable contenders in a struggle between pretty much indisputable truth and the needs of a television to bring something dramatic, and fuzzy, to his audience.

I, for one, did find Frank’s basic stance indisputable. It had hard logic and common sense attached to it, Even feeling that way, I was interested in and impressed by Lewis’s counters.

NealBoxLewis wasn’t buying Frank’s argument that no malice was intended when he hit Lyle. That hit was clean, within the rules of professional football, and an instinctive part of his job. He prevented Lyle from scoring a touchdown by stopping him at the point of the catch. He was not thinking about the level of force he was using, where he might be making contact with Lyle, how Lyle would fall, or any aftermath of the tackle. He saw a football coming, a man catching it, and the opportunity to put that man on the ground before he got to the end zone. Enough said. The incident, which again comes from Jack Tatum’s career-ending hit on Darryl Stingley, recalls the discussion of a few weeks back when Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman, Chase Utley, in this instance a pinch hitter who got on base and was running to second when another player made contact, broke up a double play by coming in hard on New York Mets shortstop Miguel Tejada, a linchpin to the Mets success.

The incident was of special interest to Philadelphians who watched Utley play for more than a decade as a star of the Phillies. Utley is known for his hard play and ability to break up defensive moves by upsetting fielders and, as a runner, going to third from first more frequently and efficiently than most. Controversy grew about the intention of Utley’s play, whether it was meant to hurt Tejada, and if it was fair or dirty. Mets fans may have their own point of view, but watching the play at it happened, I thought Utley did his proper job as a base runner defending his team’s batter going to first. If that batter is erased on a double play, the inning is over. If Utley can disrupt the throw and prevent the double play, the Dodgers have another at bat and a chance to score, which, as it turns out, they did. Utley added to run production by getting on base with a walk and keeping the inning alive with his aggressive but plausible takeout slide.

Utley played baseball. Jack Tatum was playing football. Frank Baker played football. Whatever Lewis has to say, Frank’s point of view trumps his. I found myself nodding in agreement and giving Frank thumbs up as he spoke. Conversely — or is it perversely? — I enjoyed all that Frank had to say and thought Robson made Hendricks’s character wily and filled with moxie. “Playing the Assassin” keeps you listening, keeps you thinking, and keeps you considering how both Frank and Lewis can get some of what they want. You know, an old Stephen Covey win-win.

Robson has things sailing engrossingly. Then, he pulls a surprise.

That surprise is a great psychological ploy that gives the audience a salient bid of information to consider. It also weakens Robson’s play if not Brancato’s production, which stays taut and compelling even with the Robson’s tossing a sentimental screen pass.

I do not want to rewrite Robson’s play or tell a professional writer how to compose his plot, but I’m going to do some of both anyhow.

“Playing the Assassin” is strongest as a narrative when it is a pitched battle between two professionals from different industries, each of whom is at the top of his game. When Frank, the ex-NFL star talks about football and his place in it, it’s with passion. Ezra Knight endows that character with believable, realistic adherence to the truth as he knows it. And he not only reveals the truth about football and the objects of that game, he stays true to what he believes about himself, his conduct on the field before, during, and after the hit on Lyle Morton. It’s an astounding portrait of a larger-than-life man.

Lewis, on the other hand, has CBS’s interest at heart. Yes, he thinks Frank’s public apology to Lyle is warranted, especially since, to his knowledge, it hasn’t been extended in the 20 years since the event that linked the two, but he must also explain to Frank and the DTC audience how television works and why he, as a segment producer, has to make sure certain attention-getting and attention-holding elements are in place before he rolls a camera, especially for a program that is going to precede, borrow luster from, and lead in to the Super Bowl, one of CBS’s biggest investments of any year.

The give and take, the shrewd byplay who know their business as they well as they know their needs is good theater and inspires crisp dialogue that lands in the imagination with great impact and starts a debate within you even as you’re listening to the next arguments extending it.

When Lewis’s “reveal” comes, it turns the hard-nosed to the soft and sentimental. Or to cuddly softness and cloying sentimentality. It turns one of the characters into a victim that is pleading to fulfill a need. Thanks to Knight, Hendricks, and Brancato, the DTC production doesn’t suffer a jot, but the intense power of Robson’s play is mitigated. The dynamic is changed and in a way that fools and manipulates instead of being a fair contest between two adversaries at cross purposes.

A “pity” factor that was blessedly absent is not squarely before us. We are asked to feel sorry for one of the characters who has been posing as a third-party agent until then. Robson skews the emotions towards one side. He gives Lewis new arguments, and Frank some new ground to consider, but the transition is cheap and self-conscious. It’s designed to turn a play that was issue oriented and offered solid material for consideration into soft soap in which one character is now clearly weaker than the other.

I fear Robson’s aim was to steer the audience to how Lyle’s sudden paralysis affected his family and others around him. It was to push sympathy in a specific direction to a a specific side. Argument is rendered as worthless. Now the struggle is about whether someone wounded by collateral damage to Lyle will have the satisfaction and closure he so desperately craves and needs. Robson’s hard iron turns quickly to milksop.

Miraculously, Brancato’s production is not hurt by this at all, but Robson’s play becomes less interesting. It no longer asks a man to consider all that happened to see if he can conjure the slightest responsibility or remorse to one about what man can do to placate, relieve, and soothe another man’s ongoing angst.

Robson includes some emotional lollapaloozas in the last third of “Playing the Assassin.” Two sequences that incidentally involve one-time Steelers quarterback and current Fox commentator Terry Bradshaw take on significant meaning. What started as business, and that was most suspenseful and tension-fraught as business, is now personal. Lewis says something that change the tone and spirit of “Playing the Assassin” as much as it changes the direction and the attitude the audience is invited to have towards its characters. The play, as a work of dramatic literature, is diminished by the change, even if it is dramatic and hits like a salvo. It just isn’t as satisfying. I lost a scooch of respect for Robson and “Playing the Assassin.”

I did not cease being riveted by Brancato’s production and totally concentrated on the path Robson was taking.

Thank Knight and Hendricks for that, Their commitment to Frank and Lewis’s individual arguments, desires, and needs never flagged. They remain men at loggerheads even after Lewis drops his potent bomb. “Playing the Assassin” survives its author’s self-sabotage by continuing to make you side with either Frank or Lewis to get what he wants.

You are fascinated by their struggle and curious about how all will end, which is not predictable even after Robson pulls his dramatic punch and wanders towards the easy, populist, and, frankly, pandering. “Playing the Assassin” may go from an “A” to a “B minus,” but Brancato’s staging of it, and Knight and Hendricks’s onstage showdown retain the highest of quality and utmost respect. The stakes are different and, I think lower, but the impasse and the tension created from it remains. Knight, in particular, is not inclined to give ground even when his heart and kidneys, both of which require medical attention, threaten to rebel from the stress he is creating and dealing with. You never have a bad time or a dull moment at “Playing the Assassin,” but you lose some interest in which character prevails, especially since you see how deeply Lewis needs Frank to give in to his point of view and his needs. The play remains somewhat brave even when it sells out to satisfying general public taste. It certainly is watchable and entertaining for its duration. Brancato, Knight, and Hendricks won’t let it be otherwise.

Ezra Knight is nothing short of incredible as Frank Baker. Everything this remarkable actor does is so authentic, even when Frank is in high dudgeon, you feels as if you’re watching a man living a watershed day in his life rather than a performer simulating. Knight has the moves and physicality of an aging ballplayer whose body took a toll from his hard style of play. Frank’s voice is strong, and he sounds convinced and convincing, rather than defensive, when Lewis challenges him, rankles him, or tries to roust him to capitulation, which would be total admission of intentional wrongdoing, something Frank will deny to his grave.

Knight makes Frank’s arguments clear. He delivers them in a firm, sincere tone that conveys doubt that someone cannot understand what he’s saying about football being football and the style of play that earned him the epithet, The Assassin is a source of pride because it means he did his job as he promised to and was supposed to do.

Robson writes some great speeches for Frank, and Knight presents them with impact. One sequence about how he looks at his opponents’ eyes and uses his instincts from there is particularly enlightening and spellbinding.

Garrett Lee Hendricks remains a good foil for Knight throughout., Hendricks makes Lewis dogged about getting what he set out to wrestle from Frank. He is clearly a man with a mission, that being a significant wrong must be acknowledged and mended. Hendricks is also exciting as a physical performer. His tussles with Knight’s Frank, mental and hands-on, are absorbing to behold. Brancato has made “Playing the Assassin” and intriguing two-hander by choosing a pair of top-flight actors to plays its warring characters.

Robson’s piece, while giving up some steam once Lewis’s game-changing pronouncement is made, never gives up its high emotional pitch or the sparks it regularly sends into the theater. As a production, Brancato’s “Playing the Assassin” is aces. It’s also a piece that raises your hackles as it raises your awareness. In spite of where Robson tries to lead, I think Frank has all the chips in the basic discussion he and Lewis begin. It is to the author’s and the director’s credit that Frank can win his adherents and that symbols of angelic goodness are not heaped on Lewis.

The Chicago hotel room designed by Brian Prather perfectly captures the blandness of most chain accommodations. All is well furnished in decent taste, but it all smacks of institutionalization and a fear to offend or overly coddle any guest. Charlotte Palmer-Lane did well with Frank and Lewis’s costumes. Lewis’s suit has the Brooks Brothers crispness he wants it to express. Frank’s clothes are the right blend between an informal business outing and relaxed casualness. He looks ready for a meeting, and to go out if he must, while wearing simple sweats and a T-shirt. The production’s fight director shares his name with the distinguished actor, Christopher Plummer. (If DTC wanted to be cheeky, it could legitimately claim it is now working with Christopher Plummer.

Plummer makes all confrontations well-staged and loaded with tension. Especially the scene in which frank demonstrates his technique for stopping opponents.

“Playing the Assassin” runs through Sunday, November 8, at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, in Wilmington. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $45 to $40 with discounts available and can be obtained by calling 302-594-1100 or by visiting

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