The summer might seem like an odd time to mount a play about football. But the timing works well with “Halftime With Don,” a new play by Ken Weitzman that is currently playing at NJ Rep in Long Branch, because watching it isn’t going to increase your enthusiasm for the sport. You may, in fact, find yourself vowing never to watch another game.
Its title character, played by Malachy Cleary, is a former NFL lineman who is now middle-aged and dealing with the symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that is known to afflict athletes who have endured too many blows to the head. Memory loss, mood swings, erratic and sometimes violent behavior … these have become major issues for Don, who needs a walker to get around and lives alone in a condo. He lives, largely, on a diet of Pringles and Gatorade, and covers his furniture with Post-it notes in a vain attempt to help him remember things.
Enter Ed (Dan McVey), who grew up idolizing Don and is hoping that the fondly remembered hero of his youth will inspire him again. Ed is unemployed and in the doldrums; his pregnant wife Sarah (Susan Maris) set up the meeting as a present.
And so they meet. It doesn’t go well. But it leads to another meeting, and another, and so on.
Don is, of course, not the gridiron god that Ed remembers. Yet he is still able to dispense some wisdom, in his coherent moments. And he seeks to educate Ed about the brutality of football, offering shocking statistics and horrifying stories about real football players (fans will recognize their names) who have suffered from CTE.
When Ed asks him for the one thing he would tell young players, he responds, “Easy. Don’t play football, you dimwit.”
As the relationship grows, Ed is thrilled. An aspiring writer, he even fantasizes about documenting their talks with a “Tuesdays With Morrie”-type essay that will change his life.
Cleary is particularly good as Don, giving glimpses of his former upbeat persona even as his life is collapsing all around him. And Lori Vega has some nice moments as Don’s pregnant daughter, Stephanie, whose sharply sarcastic sense of humor adds some laughs to what is, overall, a pretty dark and serious work. A subplot finds Stephanie and the more straitlaced Sarah striking up a friendship as the two men bond and battle.
“Halftime With Don” took a while to grab me. I was bothered by some implausibilities in the plot, and the scenes with just Stephanie and Sarah didn’t seem to add much.
But, to borrow a football term, it rallied in the fourth quarter — with a genuinely surprising twist, and an emotionally wrenching final scene.
“Halftime With Don” is at NJ Rep in Long Branch through July 30; visit NJRep.org. Former New York Giants star Leonard Marshall will participate in a post-show discussion on July 13.
Note: This production is part of a “rolling premiere,” organized by the National New Play Network, that also will include engagements in Indianapolis and Sacramento theaters.