Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head. Symptoms, which manifest themselves eight-to-ten years later, begin with memory loss and general physical, social and judgmental instability, leading inexorably to dementia and a propensity to harm others…or oneself. There is now a play about a retired NFL linebacker exhibiting symptoms of CTE. What took so long?
Ken Weitzman’s “Halftime With Don,” simultaneously world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company and a couple other U. S. houses, is a fictional drama whose most interesting portions are semi-documentary. This is not a knock, by any means. The well-founded points made about CTE add to a sense of reality. (The play is not about football per se, but name-checking such as Junior Seau and Mike Webster drive the theme home.)
Don Devers (Malachy Cleary), pretty much confined to his easy-chair lounger with an injured leg, subsists on a diet of Pringles, Gatorade and direct-to-mouth squirts of Reddi-Whip, hardly a balanced diet. The menu expands when unemployed long-time fan Ed Ryan (Dan McVey) eventually brings candy bars in an effort to pry personal info out of Don for a journalistic piece proposed by Don himself, details of which are revealed gradually (but not here).
The plot thickens when we learn that Ed’s visibly pregnant wife Sarah (Susan Maris) had conspired with Don’s visibly pregnant daughter Stephanie (Lori Vega) in an effort to reconcile Don with Stephanie. Aware of his own likely diagnosis, confirmable only after death, Don had avoided contact with Stephanie lest he harm her.
Cleary’s nuance-free performance works as a stark portrayal of what we (I, at least) might imagine the advancing stages of CTE to entail. He gets some laughs, which, being at him, are nervously prompted. McVey’s at-first fawning and later fearful fan is a more subtle, effective performance, and the two women are excellent, both individually and as a bonded mini-maternity ward.
The play’s awkward ending is a downer, despite its sentimental twist, but the whole two-act enterprise, smoothly directed by Kent Nicholson on Jessica Parks’s minimal set, is laudable, not least for bringing awareness of CTE to audiences that might not read the sports pages.
Through July 30 at New Jersey Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances Thurs & Fri at 8PM; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2PM. Tickets ($45): 732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org