Don Devers, a retired NFL player and widower, who now lives alone in a sparsely furnished apartment sleeping in an upholstered recliner and living on Pringles and Gatorade, is at the center of Ken Weitzman’s “Halftime With Don,” the latest world premiere play to be staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Devers, wonderfully played by Malachy Cleary, has chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease found in people who have taken repeated blows to the head. He can’t really know this for sure because he needs to be dead before his brain can be studied.
His symptoms include disorientation, memory loss, social instability, erratic behavior, and poor judgment — but don’t get the idea this two-act play that continues through July 30 is a downer. You might find yourself getting a little misty-eyed at times, but there are plenty of laughs and by the end you’ll be smiling.
Devers says football is not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. Although his mother forbade him to play, he did anyway, in secret. Not a marquee player, he was known for helping players he knocked down get back up — and warned them he’d do it again if they got in his way.
Yet every single day he misses playing ball and would do it all again. And that can make it hard to sympathize with his illness, at first. But who among us hasn’t made choices that aren’t good for us and we ultimately pay the piper?
Like King Lear railing against the storm, Don rails against the loss of his mind, his deteriorating body and erratic rages, and decides enough is enough. He comes up with a plan for the approaching Super Bowl Sunday.
His self-imposed isolation from the world is broken by Ed Ryan (Dan McVey) who comes knocking at his door eager to meet Devers, his idol and substitute father figure from childhood. Having recently lost his job, he’s hoping Devers will give him the ol’ inspiring half-time locker room speech that gets him back in the “game.”
Lori Vega is making a superb NJ Rep debut as Devers’ potty-mouth daughter Stephanie, an accountant with attitude, who is heavily pregnant by a married football player with a family he intends to keep.
Stephanie moved her father into an apartment closer to her and hired the nurses he refuses to let in to take care of him. Nor does he want to see his daughter. But not for the reason she thinks.
Rounding out the cast is Susan Maris, who plays Ed’s wife Sarah. She, too, is pregnant and the two women bond immediately. But Ed and Sarah? Communication has been a bit rough recently.
A bit more info from the playwright on how Don and Stephanie got along before their estrangement, and why Sarah and Ed don’t seem to click as well as a couple would be helpful.
Nicely directed by Kent Nicholson (including the best use of Post-It notes I’ve seen on stage), the two-hour play moves along on the small two-level set designed by Jessica Parker and lit by Jill Nagle. Patricia E. Doherty designed the costumes.
This article first was published in the June 22-29, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
NEW JERSEY REPERTORY COMPANY
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through July 30.
Tickets are $46 and available at 732-229-3166 or online at njrep.org.
As part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, following the production of “Halftime with Don” at NJ Rep, the play will be performed at B Street Theater in Sacramento, CA., and Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis, IN.