Bernie DeLeo's "Illegal Motion" is a play about college football and, judging from the reaction at a recent performance, Olney Theatre's production is attracting as many football fans as theater fans. (Or maybe it just seemed that way because of the rabid Redskins fan seated behind me).
But the truth is, this world premiere is neither championship football nor championship theater. According to the program, the playwright hopes to see his script developed into a movie. But despite director James D. Waring's clever staging and designer Carl F. Gudenius' slick stadium set -- complete with announcers' booth and scoreboard projections -- the play is more like a football soap opera, something on the order of "Games of Our Lives."
DeLeo's script oozes melodrama. The play takes place at so-called Midwestern University, where the coach has been given an ultimatum to produce a winning team -- by any means possible. And, true to the conventions of melodrama, almost all of the characters are stereotypes.
The coach's wife is goodness incarnate, constantly urging him to play by the rules. At the opposite extreme is a trio of Snidely Whiplash-style villains consisting of the president of the board of trustees, the assistant coach and the team's unofficial backer, a meat-packing magnate with morals slipperier than bacon grease.
The coach himself is caught somewhere in the middle, and in his professional stage debut, former Redskins running back John Riggins acquits himself admirably -- a considerable achievement since he plays one of the only characters who undergoes a believable change of heart.
The other characters' transformations would strain the credibility of even the most far-fetched soap opera. There is no logical reason, for example, for the coach's wife to walk out on him after he finally decides to stand up to the Bad Guys. Combined with the forced marital banter she is required to engage in, that may explain why Brigid Cleary comes across as a whiny, cartoon wife.
Then there's the team's star player. It makes no sense whatsoever that this clean-cut kid could be coerced into committing a felony. The character may be illiterate, but he is not without values. And, when we learn about his eventual fate, in the denouement, it is more unlikely yet. Much to his credit, Kevin Thigpen manages to deliver an affecting performance despite these obstacles.
As the above reference to a felony suggests, DeLeo is tottering on the edge of the preposterous here. But the preposterousness isn't the problem, it's the tottering. The playwright can't settle on a solid game plan. Surely he isn't intending to write a football soap opera. If anything, "Illegal Motion" seems to ache to be a satire, but it never fully makes that leap into comic exaggeration.
"Illegal Motion" had the largest advance ticket sale of any show in Olney's 40-year history. Of course, there's no way to know how many are going to see Riggins. And, Riggins-rooters will probably not be disappointed, even though this time it seems the hall-of-famer has failed to hook up with a winning team.
"Illegal Motion" continues at Olney Theatre through June 28. Call (301) 924-3400.