THEATER REVIEW: Football, Friendship and Fame in Theatre Exile’s Tommy and Me

Ray Didinger’s play, a natural fit for Philly sports fans, is always enjoyable, but not often more than that.

Matt Pfeiffer and Simon Kiley in Tommy and Me at Theatre Exile.

Matt Pfeiffer and Simon Kiley in Tommy and Me at Theatre Exile. (Photo by Paola Nogueras)

I know virtually nothing about sports.

Normally, I would not lead with this.  But here, it matters.  You see, the “me” of Tommy and Me is the play’s author, sportswriter Ray Didinger; and Tommy is football player Tommy McDonald, whom Didinger idolized, and whose friendship he cultivated years after McDonald’s too-short career was over.

So, Didinger and McDonald were both unknown to me — though clearly not to a standing-room-only crowd, who followed the story, full of local color and specific references, with obvious adoration.  Like I said, I’m not a sports fan. What I am is a theater critic, so maybe you’re thinking I’m a tough audience twice over.

But I can get behind an interesting story, well-told, and that’s basically what we have here.  Didinger’s script has the punchy, facts-forward quality of good journalism, and Joe Canuso’s skillfully fluid direction keeps things moving.  McDonald — a fine player and all around great person who didn’t get the breaks he deserved — is an appealing protagonist on a fundamental level. I got swept up in the play’s tone, equal parts nostalgia and enthusiasm.

Since Tommy and Me covers a long period, the two characters are played by four actors.  Adult Ray, who also functions as a narrator, is the immensely likeable Matt Pfeiffer, while his younger self is played by Simon Kiley (a refreshingly natural child actor, though his dialogue isn’t always audible).  Older Tommy is played by Tom Teti (a little shticky, but sometimes terrific); his younger self by Ned Pryce (also likeable, as well as matinee-idol handsome).

The double-cast pairing makes for some sleek storytelling, but it also feels very… well, theatrical.  Add to this that large portions of the show are delivered in direct address to the audience, and the result provides little sense of quiet, natural conversation.  Tommy and Me is never less than entertaining, but it isn’t often more.

Maybe that’s OK, but I think it could be. There’s something deeply American about the dreams and disappointments portrayed here — and now and then, a level of touching insight rises to the surface.  There’s a moment when older Tommy recalls a particular play he made — Teti’s face is transformed, and Pfeiffer watches him silently.  It’s poignant and wonderful.

A bit more of this, and the show —already enjoyable, and a natural fit for hardcore Philly football fans — might score a touchdown. (Hey, I guess I know more about sports than I thought!)

Tommy and Me runs through August 14. For more information, visit the Theatre Exile website.