Dramas about sports are enjoying a renaissance: "Moneyball"is an Oscar contender, "Magic/Bird" is on its way to Broadway and, here in Chicago, the Jackie Robinson play "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting" is packing them in at the Lookingglass Theatre. So Ronan Marra may well be on to something with "Motion," a smartly written new play that skewers the various hypocrisies of NFL management and the draft process, and the complex dance that invariably ensues between self-described super-agents, their ill-equipped charges and the plodding franchises themselves.
Along with taking down the sexism of the sports business in this world premiere, Marra has a lot of fun with the often-troubled relationship between franchise ownership — often passed down to successive generations of the same rich family — and the professionals who are hired to call the shots, theoretically, but are undermined by meddling from owners who are convinced that while statistics may lie, their guts always speaks the truth.
Marra is a talented and shrewd writer — "Motion," which is set around a fictional Cleveland team, seems inspired by the late-1990s TV series, "Sports Night," which had many fans, and there is more than a touch of Aaron Sorkin in the best parts of Marra's dry writing. Among the many amusing scenes is a press conference called after a potential first-round draft pick is caught being less than a credit to the game, in the grand tradition of many real recruits to the pros. The words of repentance that the character trots out are both absurd cliches and exactly the same vocabulary we hear every day on local sportscasts. All in all, this is an exceptionally clever and amusing script with plenty of laughs; it deserves a better, more truthful, faster-paced production.
Part of the problem here is the capable Signal Ensemble just isn't well matched with these roles. Some of the actors are too young; it's hard to believe that Meredith Alvarez is a senior sports executive and, at the performance I attended, Alvarez remained uneasy and self-conscious with her role, struggling with some of her lines. Joseph McCauley, much more solid as super-agent Drew, would be funnier if he weren't trying to seem youthful even as his belly swelled in his expensive shirt.
The guys playing the athletes (Tim Martin and Glenn Stanton) are good, handsome actors of the right age, with droll sensibilities, but they are pretty small dudes for the NFL. The performances that work best under Aaron Snook's direction come from Bries Vannon and Stephanie Chavara, who play a pair of young, hyper-articulate sport nerds and superfans of the game, and in whose dweeby little romance you find yourself fully invested.
The set, from Melania Lancy, sticks the action on a kind of miniature football field, with the audience seated in bleachers. Snook's staging picks up on that theme. These are sound ideas, and you understand why they were picked, but, in practice, the mini-stadium effect trivializes the play and stops the environment from becoming sufficiently believable and true to life that Marra's zingers land with enough satiric force to really take on such a giant as the NFL.
Better to do what Signal has done before and go minimalist — allowing us to feel the stakes and the human dramas but imagine the stadium, the crowds, the hype.
When: Through March 3
Where: Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 773-698-7389 or signalensemble.com