Signal Ensemble might be the 1968 New York Jets of Chicago theater: scrappy, undermanned and under-resourced, but quarterbacked by a leader with a knack for championship-level razzle dazzle. I’d write something like that, but Ronan Marra, Signal’s co-artistic director and the playwright of “Motion” is a Cleveland native and a Browns fan, so he might object. In any case, something pretty cool’s happening up at Signal, and “Motion” follows on the extraordinary success of 2010’s Rolling Stones bipolar “Aftermath,” with a re-teaming of playwright Marra and director Aaron Snook delivering similarly impressive results.
The small theater space has been transformed into a football field, with the cast sitting on “the bench” and about forty audience members surrounding the action in “the bleachers,” complete with cup holders and complimentary popcorn. Snook’s direction makes the most of the space, especially in a second-act scene where two opposing camps—the son of the owner of the Cleveland Rams along with his favored top draft choice, a judgmentally disabled quarterback, and the sport’s first female general manager and her favored pick, a charming Rhodes Scholar of a cornerback—alternate in their respective professional seductions.
Marra’s script crackles with wit and topicality—he has a gift for comedy. And the football bits are knowing, the work of a fan (including several nods to his heritage, including naming his fictional team after the NFL’s first franchise in his hometown, and tongue-in-cheek riffs on Cleveland’s notorious sports failures). If it has a shortcoming, it’s that it plays out as ESPN SportsCenter watchers might expect—the good guys are good and the bad guys are douche bags—without offering especially deep insights into the human character.
With minor exceptions, the ensemble is spot on in both casting and performance. Meredith Bell Alvarez as Diane fits the part of a female football executive quite well, though she doesn’t seem to fully inhabit the role quite yet. Joe McCauley as Drew, her unredeemable ex-husband and sports agent, has a tough archetype to live up to in Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold on “Entourage” and he’s not quite there yet either, though he’s well cast and I expect he’ll also come into the role more fully as the run continues. In spite of his game effort and charm, Bries Vannon is poorly cast as the upstart young assistant to Diane; he’s more squirrelly hipster than football nerd, and his thrift-store wardrobe doesn’t help make his case.
But these are minor drawbacks to what might be a major hit. As a lifelong fan of the sport, I truly enjoyed the show. I could not help but wonder, though, how it will play with the “football widows” of the world? The answer to that question might just hold the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. (Brian Hieggelke)
At Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice, signalensemble.com, (773)698-7389. Through March 3. $20.