A bleak, abstract stadium set, three-tiered but seatless, greets the eye when you take your seat at the Ritz, where Bill C. Davis' "Dancing in the End Zone" opened last night. But that's downright cheery in view of what follows, as four actors amble about for a couple of hours like characters in search of a play.
This dreary exercise about a college quarterback star's painstaking inquiry into his own identity is so fraught with symbolism that I expected the stage to collapse under its weight at any moment. The quarterback, James Bernard (Matt Salinger), has a bum knee, which opposing defense teams quite naturally try to bang into or crush at every opportunity, and which may account for the psychosomatic tendencies of his mother Madeline (Pat Carroll), who remains in a wheelchair when she might be dancing with her son. It seems that, in addition to taking dancing lessons on the side, Jamie likes to dance into the end zone, which indicates that he selfishly insists on scrambling with goal-to-go instead of letting a teammate carry the ball.
Jamie's coach, Dick Biehn (Laurence Luckinbill), has been giving Jamie Novocaine shots before each game (as well as arranging for him to receive "gift grades"), and this bothers a pretty young tutor named Jan Morrison (Dorothy Lyman), hired when it appears the school authorities are about to blow the whistle on the coach. She's married, but her husband's doing time for participating in a nuclear protest movement. She and Jamie fall in love (just a single kiss, though), but she splits when her mate is sprung, thus leaving the actors, us, and no doubt the Ritz Theater owners holding the bag.
The tutor, something of a ding-a-ling, equates football with homo-eroticism (she gets kind of explicit about the handoffs, "penetrating" the end zone, and such), and such contests (any sporting contest, presumably) with the "game" of war, her fancy carrying the thing all the way into World War Three. For his part, the coach says there ain't gonna be no World War Three. He's no mental giant, this coach, but I thought he made better sense than the tutor, and I felt a little sorry that his winning team was now doomed to go down to defeat with the defection of his star quarterback. (No back-up man?)
The actors, as I've said, just amble through this, strolling or wheeling on and off to the side, intermingling, dropping in on one another as if visiting living rooms, locker rooms, or other places - but always within that bare, uninviting set. On the other hand, not much is lost, because Davis' script, in addition to its half-baked philosophizing, unsteady moralizing and insistence on remaining neck-deep in obfuscation, is devoid even of any literary merit, its paltry attempts at humor far less bright than the muted ring of "stadium" lights circling the set high above.
Somewhere toward the end of the first act, a male member of the audience (the house appeared to be heavily papered, by the way, and outside a man and a woman each tried peddling a fistful of tickets before curtain time) erupted into a comfortable display of snoring. Some unkind neighbor prodded the poor fellow awake when it was quite obvious he was voicing the general sentiment.
So. It's a war out there - and the war is sometimes a game of football. And some people are not really meant for football or war, and would be happier learning to smell the flowers.
That would appear to be the message, or burden, of Bill C. Davis' new play, Dancing in the End Zone, which opened last night at the newly renovated and scaled-down Ritz Theater.
As in his earlier play, the popular Mass Appeal, Davis is still concerned with decision and revelation, and their impact on character.
Here Davis is postulating a battle for the soul of a football player - a school quarterback with all the right stuff, or seemingly so.
The protagonist and antagonist slugging it out for possession of the ballplayer are the team's pragmatic coach, who believes that "football is life," and the ballplayer's young female tutor, who sees it as a prelude to atomic war, and regards its machismo spirit as "a mystic, homoerotic defense of territory."
Sitting in between is the quarterback's adoptive mother, neurotically chained to a wheelchair, who appears to be everyone's image of the classic football mother, a gray-haired cheerleader capable of functioning as a surrogate coach.
Davis' play is usually on the ball. It never bores. Its arguments are occasionally simplistic and at times merely provides what the mother characterizes as "a cute philosophic ride," but its cuteness is part of the play's charm, and if its philosophy is a familiar anodyne, so be it.
The play's difficulty, for all its argumentative forensics, is the lack of involvement one feels with the characters. The ballplayer - suffering painkillers for his wrecked knee as submissively as he naively fails to question the coach arranging "gift-grades" to keep him in school - is a bit of a ninny.
As for the last coach, he has tunnel vision and sees only football at the end of the tunnel, the mother is mildly crazy, and the anti-nuclear activist tutor who devotes more activity to destroying football than to reducing atomic warheads seems, at best, unlikely.
So although the dialectic is acceptable enough if not profound, the play supporting that dialectic lacks the immediacy of likelihood or the urgency of credibility. The result is a lively tract, scattered prodigally with smart lines, and structurally employing a very neat intercutting device that is dramatically forceful.
The staging by Melvin Bernhardt adroitly emphasizes this swift intercutting and, with the assist of Douglas W. Schmidt's schematically bleak abstract setting, stresses the play's cinematic flexibility. At times it seems almost a diagramatic outline for a screenplay.
The cast is reduced to ciphers expressing viewpoints, and it expresses them with commendable vivacity. The men have the best of it. At times their give-and-take relationship, partly like father and son, recalls the two priests in Mass Appeal.
Matt Salinger's charming obtuseness as the ox-like ballplayer who discovers a conscience and a killer instinct all at once is as convincing as possible, and the excellent Laurence Luckinbill's laconic yet feisty coach gives moral blindness a certain limited vision.
Dorothy Lyman's corrugatedly crinkly grin is not always an acceptable substitute for acting, but her role is, admittedly, bare. Pat Carroll makes an impassively passive figure of the mother, slow-moving except in confrontation.
And confrontation, rather than football, is the name of the play's game. One confrontation after another, without giving the characters much chance to breathe life.
You know a play is inert when its only moving part is an electric wheelchair. Such is the case, sad to say, with Bill C. Davis's ''Dancing in the End Zone,'' a muddled campus drama that has come to rest at the Ritz. The wheelchair is driven by Pat Carroll and, in fairness, one must add that this forceful actress's resonant voice is almost as theatrical as her means of transportation. Almost, but not quite. When Miss Carroll wheels around, we forget about her lines and fantasize that a mechanical glitch might send her sailing into the auditorium to stir up some excitement.
Alas, this is about the only glitch that doesn't occur. Mr. Davis, the author of the impassioned ''Mass Appeal,'' seems to be daydreaming here. ''Dancing in the End Zone'' is two windy hours of unfocused debate about unrelated questions that hardly seem worth the asking: Is football a metaphor for life or war? Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Is it right to bring children into a world threatened by nuclear holocaust?
At the center of this disorganized panel discussion is a Midwestern college football hero, Jimmy, who is a bland retread of the seminarian of the previous Davis play. A handsome, painfully sensitive innocent with a checkered psychological past, Jimmy is an ''open wound'' searching for love, the meaning of existence and just possibly a surrogate father. We never find out for sure (let alone care) whether Jimmy succeeds in his quest, but the role is charmingly played by Matt Salinger, a young actor whose appealing presence should resurface in happier surroundings soon.
The other characters in ''Dancing'' are the adult authority figures who jealously battle for Jimmy's loyalty. Miss Carroll is the boy's adoptive mother, a hardened divorcee whose paralysis may be ''hysterical.'' Laurence Luckinbill plays the fanatical football coach, who treats his athletes like ''high-class call girls'' by plying them with drugs and ''gift grades.'' Dorothy Lyman is Jimmy's academic tutor, a fledgling investigative journalist hellbent on exposing collegiate football corruption. Among other things, she believes that football is ''a militaristic, homoerotic defensive territory'' - and that its abolition would do more to further world peace than the antinuclear protest that has landed her activist husband in jail.
We never do understand why the coach, who ruthlessly protects his fiefdom at any cost, would assign his star player a tutor intent on bringing about the team's demise. Nor is it clear why the tutor would so dutifully correct Jimmy's grammar, given her own propensity for misusing words like ''hopefully.'' What the tutor does understand is kissing, and it is her kiss that leads the hero to abandon competitive sports and consider ''dancing'' into emotional fulfillment.
Dancing is only one of several metaphors that dribble through the evening. Mr. Davis also makes much symbolic use of a birch tree, picnics, wounded animals and the mother's crippled legs. Now and then, he tosses out a joke. When Jimmy tells Mom that the tutor has ''opened'' him up, Miss Carroll snaps back, ''What are you - a jar of olives?''
The splintery scenes spill about on a spartan, all-purpose set - a few mock bleachers, an Astroturf carpet and a tilted cloth ceiling onto which are projected images of clouds and Venetian blinds. It is, I fear, the stadium of life. The direction, by the usually reliable Melvin Bernhardt, suggests what ''Equus'' might be like if the horses fled the stable. The four actors remain on stage throughout, freezing solemnly in place whenever they're excluded from a particular colloquy. Miss Lyman's brittle, tight-lipped tutor is frozen at all times: She's in no way persuasive as either a youthful idealist or a femme fatale. Mr. Luckinbill's coach - a gruff laugh and little else - seems so tired that Miss Carroll really should offer him her chair.