A review of "Browns Rules" — now playing at Cleveland Public Theatre.
By Christine Howey
Stunned disbelief. That was my reaction, with thousands of other Clevelanders’, after Brian Sipe threw “Red Right 88,” the interception that lost the 1981 playoff game in the final minute. Stunned disbelief is also my reaction to Browns Rules, the limp comedic-musical-sketch pastiche by Eric Schmiedl that is now losing yardage at Cleveland Public Theatre.
It’s an honorable attempt to pay tribute to the Browns’ glorious long-ago legacy, as well as abused Browns fans of the past few decades. But Schmiedl and co-lyricist/composer and director Bill Hoffman have only succeeded in fashioning a play that is as comprehensively hapless as the current Brownies themselves.
God knows this task ought to result in several touchdowns; there’s more than enough material to write a play that looks at Cleveland’s love affair with its ever-struggling NFL franchise. This is a team born in glory (eight league championships from 1946 to 1964), but which has never competed in the Super Bowl, now celebrating its XLIVth anniversary.
Poke any Browns fan of a certain age, and they can detail their psychic scars from the Fumble, the Drive and ol’ RR88. And Browns Rules touches on some of those points, along with a few good memories. But due to a lack of wit and a tendency to play it safe with antique jokes and lame stereotypes, this production feels like you’re watching Ken Dorsey (zero TDs and seven interceptions for the Browns in five games) futilely attempt to lead.
Arranged in rough chronological order, the songs and skits address Paul Brown (dutifully checking off his many innovations to the pro game) and storied quarterback Otto Graham. Unfortunately, due to a combination of bad acoustics in CPT’s Gordon Square Theatre and poor sound design, most of the lyrics are undecipherable. But if the sung words are as dull and predictable as the spoken ones, we probably aren’t missing much.
There are 11 tunes, which isn’t many, considering the show lasts almost as long (two-and-a-half hours) as a Browns game. But only one has any musical freshness. It’s ironic that “All Night, All Day,” a catchy gospel number, has nothing to do with the subject at hand.
Backed by a three-person combo led by Hoffman, the trio of performers struggles to bring some snap to the soggy material. One of them is playwright Schmiedl himself, who has a goofy, lanky appearance that’s rather amusing. However, his delivery is often so slow and laborious that the humor flits away. Nick Koesters works it hard, as always, but his sweat shows and it isn’t pretty. And Nathan A. Lilly often looks like he wishes he were somewhere — anywhere — else.
From a misguided paean to halfback Ernie Davis’ tragic demise from leukemia at age 23 to an international tour of Cleveland fans that dredges up a fistful of hoary cliches (French guys as gay!, Sicilian guys as Mafioso!), Browns Rules thrashes desperately to avoid drowning.
But this is a play that should be half as long, twice as funny and 10 times more insightful and imaginative about the pain Browns fans carry with them like a lead weight in their souls.