Friday, January 12, 2018

Of generation and degeneration: Phoenix's 'Halftime With Don' goes deep in NNPN rolling world premiere

Brain-damaged ex-NFL star Don Devers (Bill Simmons) rests uneasily.
The label of "America's Pastime" passed from baseball to football late in the 20th century, and one of the era's major comedians, George Carlin, suggested part of the reason when he compared the language of both sports, wittily placing baseball in the nation's pastoral past.

But recently seismic shocks to the 21st-century solidity of NFL pre-eminence, from civic blackmail by owners to players "taking a knee" during the national anthem, have rattled the sport. Among the most concerning, reaching down into youth football, are the health consequences of repeated hits, especially concussions resulting in brain damage and long-term deterioration of character.

In "Halftime With Don," Ken Weitzman reaches into the topic of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and comes up with a drama that, thankfully, doesn't make a fetish of topicality. Crucially, it's a family drama with added resonance from the phenomenon of fan hero worship. CTE shapes the action, but the play avoids getting down into the documentary weeds.

It grinds our emotions into the turf of athletic suffering and persistence, yet heroically presents the
struggles of its main character in a transformative context. The retired NFL defensive back, Don Devers, is well beyond healing, but an extra-medical attempt to rescue him from dismal isolation becomes oddly restorative for three others.

Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman) is desperate to reconnect with her dad.
That attempt is carried out by Ed Ryan, a nervous fan who's tended the flame of admiration from afar since boyhood; his expectant wife, Sarah, who has wangled an audience for him with the athlete as a birthday present, and Devers' daughter Stephanie, who has made that freighted gift possible in a desperate ploy to get access to her father as she prepares to deliver her own child without any close support.

As Don, Bill Simmons adds to his record of searing Phoenix portrayals of complex characters. The coherence he gives to the portrait of a disintegrating personality is remarkable. The seesawing between mental clarity and "nobody home," between frightening violence and relaxed, playful amiability, consistently bears the ring of truth. In Thursday's preview performance, he wrung the withers nonstop.

Most of Don's mood swings are visited firsthand upon Ed, played with feverishly managed anxiety and a firm sense of duty by Michael Hosp, whose face registered every nuance of the put-upon journalist's resourcefulness and often appalled spontaneity.

Explosive friendship: Ed and Don bond over Pop Rocks and Coke.
Weitzman's title plays upon the huge best-selling memoir by sportswriter Mitch Albom, "Tuesdays With Morrie," which comes up in the Don-Ed dialogue. But the heavy irony is that "Halftime With Don" alludes to the play's upcoming Super Bowl halftime and the miserable athlete's dark plans for that event, not the gentle wisdom of Albom's dying former professor.

The scoop Ed has envisioned as he tries to graduate from unread blogger to celebrated sports scribe is quickly thrown into peril by his unstable subject. The access Don grants comes with a heavy price, and Ed's stress goes through the roof. Also tested is his relationship with his sweet, supportive wife (Chelsea Anderson), contrasted with the salty cynicism of Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman). The women's unlikely but undeniable bond was beautifully realized in Thursday's performance.

Many new plays with a dark atmosphere hit notes of comedy along the way. I admired Weitzman's ability to fleck the dialogue with humor. Even more successful was how well he individualized the characters. Each talks differently, and yet he doesn't indulge in either cleverness or purple patches for any of the four. The characters are three-dimensional without excess coloration.  And, as directed by Bryan Fonseca, the cast inhabited them with abundant vivacity that never chewed the scenery. Which, by the way, consists of two sets (Don's home and Stephanie's apartment), marvelously designed by Daniel Uhde, in opposite corners of the Basile Theatre.

Among the foliage of Post-It Notes with which Don habitually decorated his locker as a player, whose successors now serve to jog his decaying brain as he sits moping and pained in his recliner, is one Ed has held onto for years. It's the source of his admiration for the football star — sort of his "Rosebud" — an encouraging reply to the fan letter he wrote as a bullied, fatherless fat kid with a stutter: "Your greatest moment is yet to come."

He also liked Don's habit of giving a hand up to any wide receiver he'd just upended, asking if the opponent was okay and promising him more of the same next time. In that context, it's worth recalling a real-life wide receiver's answer on last weekend's "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me," when Peter Sagal, the host, asked him if he recalled any trash talk with the defensive backs who would be trying to bring him down as soon as he caught a pass.

"No," replied Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice. "I just look at the defensive back and I say, 'You done.'"

"Halftime with Don" is the heart-piercing story of a man who keeps hearing the ghostly, agile wide receiver in his head stage-whisper, "You done." It's a judgment that few of us, never likely to be subject to the hurts of Don Devers, are ever willing to accept. The spirit of resistance to that voice deserves to be incarnated as well as it is in this production.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]