Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
The American premiere of "Players" at the Eisenhower Theater reveals a crackling fine, true and humorous new drama from Australia. The run is for five weeks, word-of-mouth will be solid, and I strongly urge you to take a chance on this unfamiliar territory.
For though the territory may seem unfamiliar, playwright David Williamson has created universal characters in recognizable situations, a world in the microcosm of struggles for power in the management of a football team.
Tightly written and splendidly played by an American cast headed by Fred Gwynne and Rex Robbins, the play reveals a dramatist with far more on his mind than the picturelined boardroom of a distant ball club.
Of the players we seen only two: the other four characters are involved, in their individual ways, with how to control them. Williamson gradually, with dramatic skill which holds our interest, reveals why each wants to win his own segment of power.
Initially, the aim seems to be to unload coach Laurie Holden, whose team indicates that if he goes, "perhaps the committee ought to roll up and play tomorrow's match." The club president, a non-athlete, uses the club for his business and social purposes; yet from boyhood he's loved the team and seen the presidency as the apex of his life.
Playing a trickier game is Jock, a former member and former coach, anxious to hold on to the records he established. Regretting the disappearance of old values, Jock is revealed as a monstrous hypocrite who plays each associate against the other.
Observing and seeming to seek compromises for peace, general manager Gerry suggests the cold, new age-a man careful of his dress (proper gray) and of getting along to keep the team playing. Williamson draws you into asking: "What's Gerry's angle?"
As for coach Laurie, after having done a bit of angling to get Jock's old job, he's a comparative innocent, not aware that his number's about up but still wanting to get the best out of his team.
Of the players who are pawns in the struggle, Danny represents the traditional, serious eager-beaver, a potential victim; Geoff is the new breed, onto the weaknesses of his elders and onto hash as well.
Having outlined his characters through terse, often very funny dialogue, Williamson then proceeds to skin his men alive, getting into their true drives and into how deviously men will plot for power.
It is this dramatic skill which gives the play its power to absorb. While one may give more than a passing thought as to what goes on in the Redskins' boardroom (and, for those who can remember them, that of the Washington Senators), the tensions come from the men as ordinary, selfprotecting humans. While it can't quite be said that there are no villains here, Williamson shrewdly has poured humanity into all his men.
There may be those who will find this study of men exclusively macho entertainment, but Williamson ties up that knot, too. His current hero mocks the game. No, because there are no females visible, this can't be said to be antifemale. This author simply is looking at men without women.
Finally, there is humor, reaching a highlight of truthful observations in a scene between wise, mocking Geoff and famous old Jock. Geoff rolls his own cigarettes but Jock doesn't know that it's not with tobacco. The result is a gloriously comic scene to start Act II.
It may be argued that the play seems to end, so far as the power struggle is concerned, before Williamson chooses to end it, but I found his explanation for those who play the game for love and not for money a valuable if appended statement.
The roles are alive for appreciative, skilled actors and all six are exactly that under Michael Blakemore's unobtrustive direction.
Fred Gwynne's Jock will conjure up ambivalent memories of his "Texas Trilogy" colonel but he makes Jock an entirely different fellow, ruthless in his sly equivocations, done in by his own guile. Because Washington so enjoyed Preston Jone's trio of plays and some New Yorkers failed to dig them, one almost hesitates to enthuse over Gwynne's performance and role. I shall risk the fates and enthuse anyway over both.
Rex Robbins, as the coach, has the most dynamic role and does it with strong, assured skills, a solid study of the man. Thomas A. Carlin, back after years from Washington stages, is pertinently beefy and absolutely first-rate as the president, and Michael O'Hare's Geoff and Tom Flagg's Danny are sharply conceived. As the master mechanic of how to exist in today's world, Gerry, Gene Rupert creates a figure coldly familiar to anyone who inhabits the offices and boardrooms of our slick, accomodating '70s.