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The Rousuck Review: "X's And O's"

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Center Stage
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Somewhere between Berkeley, California, last January, and Baltimore, now, the play, X’s and O’s, lost its subtitle: “A Football Love Story.”

When you see Berkeley Rep’s co-production with Center Stage, love isn’t the first emotion that comes to mind. Fandom, fervor, loyalty; definitely. But love? Well, as the saying goes: Love is blind.

Blind to such football health hazards as concussion and CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the condition that used to be called “punch drunk.” The play also raises other issues, but brain damage is the focus.

X’s and O’s is a docudrama created by two avowed football fans – KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein. Mercein, who also appears in the cast, is the daughter of a veteran NFL running back. He was one of more than 50 people – football players, their families and fans– interviewed for this play.

Sanchez is the co-author of ReEntry, a play about Marines returning from war, produced at Center Stage five years ago. ReEntry avoided taking an overt political stand. X’s and O’s does take a stand: Football needs to be safer. Period.

There are scenes of a team physician showing slides of CAT scans and videos of players being injured. At the performance I attended, the audience gasped when actress Marilee Talkington, as the doctor, showed footage of a player’s body and head going in opposite directions upon impact.

Then there’s the testimony of players who suffered – and played through – serious injuries. Although 90 percent of the script consists of verbatim transcripts, the names are changed.

The playwrights insist they didn’t set out to write an expose, but X’s and O’s comes closer to that than to theater. There simply isn’t enough conflict. Football-inflicted brain injuries are terrible. No argument.

The play makes the point with historical sections that explain, for example, that in 1905, 19 players died on the field. And it makes the point with modern-day sections about players who suffered early onset Alzheimer’s, dementia, or committed suicide.

It’s strong stuff, but for the most part, it’s presented in a way that’s more informational than theatrical.

This, despite slick direction by Tony Taccone and an agile cast of six in multiple roles. One of those six happens to an actual former NFL player, Dwight Hicks. A rare instance of theatrical flair comes when the wives of two players share the stage with the son of another. Marilee Talkington and Jenny Mercein play the wives; Eddie Ray Jackson plays the son.

The production’s design is high tech with NFL flair. ESPN’s SportsCenter would feel right at home on Todd Rosenthal’s set; Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting includes two banks of stadium-style lights as well as projections; and Jake Rodriguez’s sound makes ample use of football-inspired themes.

And for Baltimore theatergoers, there are references to the Ravens and even the Colts. A comment about the Colts leaving still gets a rise.

Plays about football have generated attention lately. Last season Olney Theater Center produced a powerful look at college ball called Colossal

X’s and O’s seems more concerned with making its case than dramatizing it. Even the most diehard football lovers will find it difficult to argue with the play’s premise. But they’ll also find more drama played out on the field than on stage.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.