The ferocity of pro football drives the narrative but ultimately gets stuffed at the line of scrimmage in Berkeley Repertory's world premiere docudrama, X's and O's (A Football Love Story).
Despite a sturdy cast and the talents of playwright KJ Sanchez, both carried briskly by artistic director Tony Taccone's trim steering, the play's central, gripping issue — why Americans fall under the spell of a $9 billion industry that smashes its greatest assets and fights to deny the damage — deflates under theatrical lopsidedness.
The play is based on Sanchez and co-creator Jenny Mercein's interviews with players, fans, sports journalists, coaches, medical experts, and ex-players and their family members. Mercein, the daughter of former pro player Chuck Mercein, is also a crisp, powerful actor in the production; another actor Dwight Hicks is a former San Francisco 49er. Additional authenticity comes from well-researched statistics, historical footage, and a circular set designed by Todd Rosenthal that features mini overhead Jumbotrons and hustles adroitly to become a bar, a sports talk TV set, a living room, and a gridiron.
Presenting a world in which the balletic antics of even teams that suck have "sixty-thousand people sucking together" with them (to paraphrase the actors' lines in opening moments), X's and O's collides with reality when Marilee Talkington, the team physician, delivers a whiplash-style lecture under images displaying the withered brain scans of Alzheimer's and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) sufferers.
The first diagnosis of an NFL player with CTE, long-term brain damage that science attributes to multiple concussions, arrived as late as 2002, the audience is warned. The futility of better helmets and other attempts to soften the impact of a 320-pound adult male colliding with the soft tissue of another man's head or body is ominously outlined. But unless the viewer's avoided all sports-oriented broadcasts over the last 10 years, it's hard to believe the toss-and-flatten practices of pro football are news. Unfortunately, this drains the scene of its power.
But other facts presented might surprise people: the average three years most players last in the sport, balanced against the four-year requirement to earn a pension. Or the players' lack of financial resources after their careers are finished, when their medical bills are soaring. This is news that doesn't often make the headlines.
Eventually, the actors retreat into a corner with their monologues, desperately seeking solutions. If players weren'tallowed in the game until they were adults and responsible for their own health, the injuries would still be astronomical. But if kids under 18 play, how can a coach or parent act responsibly, knowing an accumulation of brain-bashing collisions might lead to suicide, depression, uncontrollable anger problems, or even death?
In the best moments, Sanchez and Mercein veer close to the souls of those who adore football, or alternatively, characters whose lives were torched by having lost a loved one to the sport.
"Men who brought beauty to brutality," says Bill Geisslinger (giving rhapsodic performances in several roles, including a hilarious appearance as a Raider in one vignette). It's lines like this one that capture incongruous essence in six words and bring to mind ReEntry, Sanchez's previous docudrama based on interviews with Marines returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. You wish that X's and O's were as concise all the way through. And wonder why the camaraderie/peril paradigm of the sport is mostly unexplored.
Although slightly overlong and wheel-spinning, a living room scene achieves what the play aspires to be. Two widows and the son of an NFL player (the latter played by Eddie Ray Jackson, the cast's most charismatic and poignant member) ruminate over their losses. An unavoidable, nagging hook emerges to ask the questions voiced by Hicks, portraying a former player: "What do we want? What happens next?"
X's and O's begins with a screen display announcing that the stories told are true, but names have been changed to avoid being sued. It's sardonic, but also the first hint X's and O's might not be brazen.
The sport America loves hurts real people, but it's also our gladiator moment: heroic and worth the price of pain. Compelling theater asks these hard questions. It's okay to start dead center on the 50-yard line, but frustrating to end up there, unchanged but for the bashing.
The takeaway? If you don't know what's happening in the NFL, this is a terrific education delivered by fine actors with a few moments of compelling drama and hints of greatness. If you are already in the game, on either side of the field, X's and O's might leave you clamoring for harder hits.