Wherever that couch is, there is still a dent in the cushion left by my leaden butt after Red Right 88 ended our dreams of a Browns’ Superbowl appearance in 1981. I don’t think I moved for hours, maybe days, stupefied. Food had to be brought to me, as if I was bedridden. And comatose.
I say this for those who weren’t around at the time, so they know exactly how devastating that loss was. Playing the endless loop of the wayward end zone pass that landed in defender Mike Davis’ hands instead of Ozzie Newsome’s. With less than a minute left! With the ball on the opponent’s 13 yard line, in easy range for a winning field goal!
This is important, because the one-man production The Kardiac Kid, by playwright and performer Eric Schmiedl and now at Cleveland Public Theatre, treads on sensitive and depressingly sacred ground. If he doesn’t get the vibe right about this event, then the whole play lands like a leaden Mike Phipp’s incompletion.
Happily, Schmiedl approaches the tragedy with the proper amount of gravitas, inching up on it as he takes us through the entire 1980 Browns’ season. Diagramming plays and showing photos on an overhead projector (a nice ‘80s touch), he captures the essence of the Browns team under coach Sam Rutigliano and quarterback Brian Sipe.
But the playwright and director Bill Hoffman do much more than that, by following four different storylines of fans who were affected by the eventual cataclysm. Teenage girl Abigail, the Catholic priest Father Carey, tool & die man Eddie (along with his magic Browns knit cap) and busboy-turned-assistant-chef Henry are each living their lives while intertwined with the fate of their city’s beloved team.
As a writer, Schmiedl has a pointillist’s eye for telling details, taking the time to observe how Abigail treasures her new school clothes, how the priest relates to his sly old hound Stanley, and relishing the aroma of west side Eddie’s chicken paprikash.
And as a performer, Schmiedl is enormously warm and folksy without being cloying. Speaking primarily as a narrator, he leads us through the tale of woe with a gangly, softly modulated honesty that always rings true. At times, he feels like the Cleveland version of Will Rogers, calm and affable, except in those moments when his temper flares over The Pick or our hated rivals in Pittspuke, er, burgh.
Interestingly, Schmiedl doesn’t simmer in the rancid juices of that play, he just steps up to it and then stops. This may be frustrating for those who don’t have a profound, visceral memory of what happened that day more than 30 years ago.
And the playwright makes a couple stutter steps in the wrong direction, especially when he drags in maudlin scenes involving Henry’s love life and a kitchen mishap. Plus, he can’t resist a thematic summing up at the end that undercuts the subtlety he has employed throughout.
Still, The Kardiac Kid is a poignant love letter to the Browns, to the city and to those who suffer to this day in our orange and brown knit caps. With a pom pom on top.
The Kardiac Kid
Through October 20 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727.