'Assassin," a crisp two-character play by David Robson, is in previews at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St.

It opens on Wednesday, and it is not about John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald or even Gavrilo Princip, the zealot who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and triggered World War I.

It is not about football, which is something you can tell your wife or girlfriend when she sighs and rolls her lovely eyes at the thought of seeing a play based on what happened to Jack (Assassin) Tatum, who played for the Raiders 35 years ago.

Tatum hit Patriots wide receiver Daryl Stingley so hard, Stingley's fourth and fifth vertebrae were severed.

Names are changed, facts are jiggled. "I wanted to be able to fictionalize the event and its aftermath," Robson says. "I didn't want to tell their story."

It's a grim story, and even jiggled, it comes at the right time for area football fans, because it is hard-hitting, intense, tenacious as a pit bull, intangibles we did not see from a certain local NFL squad this season.

Go ahead, take 10 seconds, reread the previous paragraph. I'll wait.

Tatum played defense for the Raiders. Wore black and silver, tackled black and blue. Made those greyhound-lean wide receivers wary of coming across the middle. Made their knees tremble, made their palms sweaty. Did not mind one bit when someone nicknamed him "Assassin."

Stingley came across the middle in that exhibition game in 1978. An exhibition game -

we're talking about an exhibition game. Stingley lunged for a pass and Tatum hit him. Hard.

Stingley did not get up. They strapped him to a board and rushed him to a hospital. Tatum tried to visit him the next day, but was sent away by Stingley's family. He and Tatum never spoke.

The NFL did not call them exhibition games. Called them preseason games, so they could charge in-season prices. The rules were different then. A defensive back could bump and thump a receiver all the way downfield, karate-chop him as the ball arrived, whatever.

Mayhem. The fans loved mayhem. Gangs wore Raiders gear because of the sinister guy in the logo with the black eye-patch. They loved black. They loved black because most people didn't, and because it made most people wary, made their knees tremble, their palms sweaty.

Tatum's hit was a clean hit. The officials said so. No penalty on the play. No fine or suspension from the league. Stingley spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down. Tatum spent the rest of his life with that invisible V branded on his forehead, Villain.

"The play," Robson says, "uses football as a backdrop, a context, but its themes of redemption and reconciliation and facing one's demons are universal. I'm interested in the idea of being defined by one thing, as both men were."

The drama is relevant, not just in stark contrast to the way the Eagles played this season. The play is topical because there is talk of bounties (remember, this was 1978), because there is talk of steroids, thinly disguised in a rant about pumping cattle full of hormones to bulk them up swiftly, and there is talk about the public's fascination with violence.

You might want to keep in mind that 29 years after Tatum hit Stingley, one of those ubiquitous pregame network shows ("Monday Night Countdown") was cackling about a segment they called "Jacked Up."

They showed a medley of ferocious hit after ferocious hit, with the panel chortling, "He got ... jacked up!" The league looked the other way. Yo, the league has a chronic stiff neck from looking the other way.

It cannot continue to look the other way, not when Junior Seau commits suicide with a shotgun blast to his chest and the family agrees to send of a sliver of his brain to the National Institutes of Health and the doctors find evidence of a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma.

That's not in the play, but something you can talk about afterward, the way good plays stimulate lively discussion that lasts a lot longer than the play itself.

Brian Anthony Wilson, from HBO's hit "The Wire," plays Frank Lucas, the character based on Tatum. Dwayne A. Thomas plays Lewis, an attorney representing the unseen Stingley character. For much of the play, they resemble tennis pros, standing behind the baseline, hitting deep shots laced with topspin. When they come to the net, bam, pow, wham, they slam the ball and each other. There are some hairpin twists, some violence, some obscene language.

Seth Reichgott directs at a lively pace. He agrees; it is not a football play. "Most plays are not about what they seem to be about," Reichgott says. " 'Assassin' is about people. It's about two men interacting, meeting 25 years later, and how their lives have changed.

"Lewis realizes that Frank is just a man. A man, not a monster."