A scene from "X's and O's" at Center Stage.
A scene from "X's and O's" at Center Stage. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

With football injuries of one kind or another happening around the clock and around the country, Center Stage offers a well-timed conversation-sparker in the form of "X's and O's."

This brisk theatrical rush about football confronts the physical risks of playing what one character calls "the best game there is," while simultaneously celebrating the magnetic hold that game has on so many people.

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Informative and diverting, "X's and 'Os" was written by playwright KJ Sanchez with Jenny Mercein, who performs in the production (she's the daughter of former NFL fullback Chuck Mercein).

Sanchez and Mercein contacted all sorts of people connected with football — players, coaches, families, fans, medical specialists — and incorporated what they heard into the script.

The play was first performed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California earlier this year with the six-member cast currently at Center Stage, a cast that gains extra verisimilitude from the presence of Dwight Hicks, who had a major NFL career with the San Francisco 49s before turning to acting.

"X's and O's" avoids heavy-handed polemics. It also strikes a pretty even balance between reveling in the sport and warning about all the bad stuff that has been known and largely ignored or downplayed for more than a century.

The play is sort of like watching game highlights on TV — short clip, short discussion, short clip. The flashes of history are especially interesting, as when the cast recounts Theodore Roosevelt's intervention when deadly injuries on the field were causing talk of reforming football; or when vintage newsreel footage flashes on the multi-screens that are part of Todd Rosenthal's vibrant set, showing some guy's absurd invention for a safe helmet.

But then we meet a retired player who talks in sobering detail about how the "plastic and air" helmets worn in his day were considered more than adequate protection. Or a doctor will put up some slides showing healthy and compromised brains. Or a scarred veteran football player, once used to adulation, who will ask: "How do you go from superman to man, from a man to nothing?"

The script is complete with a mention of the Ray Rice scandal and a reference to the recently uncovered Pentagon practice of paying for patriotic displays at games. Questions of race, big money, stadiums and the like also get raised (the Washington Redskins take some well-aimed hits, though not about its name). Fortunately, moments that verge on preachy or lecture-y are brief. And humor is deftly applied periodically.

Several scenes find the actors going through dynamically choreographed motions that conjure gridiron chills and thrills, all part of how the show, directed by Tony Taccone, maintains its charge. That momentum is enough to help get past some of the weaker elements, including recurring scenes set in a sports bar, where, in rather forced dialogue, two die-hard fans debate with a doubter about concussions and other matters.

Helping everything work smoothly are actors, who demonstrate what you could call team spirit; their cohesiveness counts for a lot. Hicks and Bill Geisslinger are especially effective playing older players. Eddie Ray Jackson shines as an eager younger one. Marilee Talkington gives the physician character a naturalness that nicely offsets the technical talk. Anthony Holiday brings a resonant voice and a level of cool. Jenny Mercein's sensitive acting is another plus.

"X's and O's" doesn't add up to a major work of theater, but it has heart and honesty. Most importantly, the play does what it set out to do — make you think in fresh ways about a game that holds a big part of this country in its thrall.

This is especially so in a pivotal passage near the end that drives home with quiet eloquence about the mental decline of brain-injured players. They stopped being the husbands or fathers they were, and ended up adding to the statistics of football's ever-growing toll.

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