The oldest maxim of the theater is: The show must go on.
But not at the February 1 performance of "X's and O's (An American Love Story)," a smart, sad, funny and ultimately very moving play about pro football now playing at Berkeley Rep, when the opening curtain was delayed for several minutes.
Reason: The audience was still in the bar, eyes glued to the final minutes of the Super Bowl on TV. The cast was watching, too, huddled around a tiny television set backstage.
"Three minutes after the game was over, we were onstage," says actress/playwright Jenny Mercein, who created "X's and O's" with her fellow actress/playwright, KJ Sanchez. "The show had wonderful energy that night."
On one level, "X's and O's" is an epic history of football, from the very first game, Princeton vs. Rutgers in 1869, to today's mounting concerns about brain damage.
On another level, it's the very personal story of what it's like to find something (or someone) you really love and then lose it - or him.
"X's and O's" uses almost verbatim dialog from interviews Sanchez and Mercein conducted with more than 50 former NFL players, including Mercein's own father, running back Chuck Mercein, who played from 1965 to 1971 for the Giants, Packers and Jets. When he heard she was planning this project, he said, "Sounds like a great idea. I want nothing to do with it."
"He was saddened by a Packers reunion he'd attended," she explains. "He was expecting it to be reminiscing about old times, but it turned out to be about people who were sick or suffering or had died."
But he eventually came around, and so did many others.
"Being his daughter definitely opened doors for me," she says. "All I had to say was 'My father played for Vince Lombardi.'"
Lending first-hand expertise to the production is one of the actors – Dwight Hicks, the four-time Pro Bowl safety who played a key role in the 49ers' first two Super Bowl victories.
Unlike many players, who feel lost after their playing days are over, Hicks hit the ground running and built a second career as a character actor on more TV shows than I can count, including "ER," "Castle," "How I Met Your Mother" and "The X-Files."
"A lot of guys I played with defined themselves by what they did," he says. "I never defined myself as a football player. My mother taught me that. I just found another passion."
They both say football and the theater have a lot in common, especially a dedication to your craft - but with one big difference.
"I was taking an acting class where they were teaching us the Alexander Technique, a spinal tension release," says Mercein. "I burst into tears and said, 'My father played for Vince Lombardi! Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it!' But that's not the way it works in the theater."
"There's no winner or loser in the theater, either," Hicks added.
So what does Mercein's dad think of the play?
"He hasn't seen it yet! He just had double knee replacement surgery, so he won't see it until the final week. But my mom saw it, and she loved it."
I saw it last Sunday, and I loved it, too.