Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Tommy and Me
Theatre Exile
Review by Cameron Kelsall


Simon Canuso Kiley and Ned Pryce
Photo by Paolo Nogueras
What does it take to get Philadelphians inside a theater? The answer, apparently, is football. The South Philly-based Theatre Exile scored a touchdown (forgive me) last summer with Tommy and Me, local sportswriter Ray Didinger's autobiographical play about his lifelong fascination (and subsequent friendship) with Eagles wide receiver Tommy McDonald, which culminated in a successful campaign to get McDonald inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The initial production sold out before its first performance, and so much interest remained that Theatre Exile has mounted a three-week return engagement at the FringeArts space in Penn's Landing.

I missed Tommy and Me the first time around, and I must confess a slight sense of dread washed over me when the current engagement's press release landed in my inbox. I am, to put it mildly, not the target audience. I don't follow sports, and I don't find they make a particularly captivating subject for drama. (The best sports-themed plays, like That Championship Season or The Great White Hope, are not really about sports at all.) I also find deep dives into fandom quite boring; just because something is interesting to a certain dedicated group doesn't mean it will necessarily appeal to the rest of us. And bio-plays, especially those about celebrities or public figures, run the risk of hero worship, navel-gazing, or both. Yet, ever the dutiful critic, I accepted the invitation, hoping to find a genuine human story beneath the football jargon and wink-and-nudge references to players and coaches past.

Thankfully, Tommy and Me offers some compelling moments as it charts both Didinger's evolution from football-besotted adolescent to hardened sports journalist and the ups and downs of McDonald's journeyman career. (After leading the Eagles to its last championship, in 1960, McDonald bounced around a half-dozen teams before retiring in 1968.) The production employs double-casting, and one of the play's best scenes comes when grown Ray (Matt Pfeiffer) interviews McDonald (Tom Teti), shadowed by his younger self (Simon Kiley). As the adult journalist tries to remain objective, the young man rattles off a litany of obscure stats in tandem with McDonald, proving himself still a fanboy at heart. Young Ray implores his older self to tell McDonald about the summers he spent at Eagles training camp in Hershey, where he often carried the player's helmet as they walked together after practices.

The play sputters by taking too long getting to what should be the meat of the evening: Didinger's Hall of Fame campaign on McDonald's behalf. As presented by Didinger and script consultant Bruce Graham, it becomes a nonevent—several false starts, then a triumphant victory. Part of the problem rests in their decision to put the focus squarely on Didinger rather than McDonald; we never see how the decade-long crusade affected him. Did all those years waiting by the phone hurt his pride? Was there ever a moment when he wanted to just give up? The rejection and ultimate relief McDonald experienced in the process are the stuff of great drama, but instead we get a series of direct-address reportage that would be more appropriate in a history book.

This problem persists throughout much of the play, though. Didinger writes for his audience; he has to do little more than drop a meaningful name here and there to get them eating from his hand. References to Connie Mack Field elicit knowing nods on cue, just as name-checking the Dallas Cowboys or the much-maligned Eagles coach Joe Kuharich draws hisses and guffaws. Those of us who don't spend every Sunday tuned into ESPN are left with little to hang on, and I spent most of the 75-minute play imagining the potential dramatic scenarios left unexplored to make room for this rather sterile trip down memory lane.

The quartet of actors, which also includes Ned Pryce as Young Tommy, turn in fine performances—although Pryce's Southwestern twang somehow turns into an untraceable Mid-Atlantic accent in Teti's mouth. However, the production suffers from Joe Canuso's oddly static direction. The intimate play feels a size too small for the cavernous FringeArts space, and Canuso does little to mitigate this; even from my seat in the fourth row, I often felt miles away from the action. The deep, floor-level playing area dwarfs Thom Weaver's lived-in set, and the actors often appear as if they're floating in open space. Many of Canuso's choices seem anathema to the script, as when he directs Young Tommy and Young Ray to stand stock-still and deliver their lines to the audience when they're supposed to be walking and talking. I couldn't help imagining several times what Pfeiffer, a Barrymore-winning director in his own right, might have done to make the play flow a little more organically.

But I doubt these flaws matter at all to the crowds of Eagles fans currently flooding FringeArts. They've come to bask in the history of their beloved team, and judging from the affirmative reactions at the performance I attended, they're leaving happy. Most probably won't attend another theatrical performance in Philadelphia for the rest of the year—especially now that football season is upon us. And I'm not one to judge, because you won't find me at Lincoln Financial Field any time soon either. I just wish that, overall, the marriage of football and theater presented here offered a bit more for those of us who don't exactly bleed green.

Theatre Exile's production of Tommy and Me continues through Sunday, August 20, 2017, at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd. Tickets ($35-40) can be purchased at www.theatreexile.org or by calling 215-218-4022.


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