If Broadway is a museum, the mediocrities depicted in Jason Miller’s 1972 play That Championship Season (in previews at the Bernie Jacobs Theater) are dinosaurs. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, five men “somewhere in the Lackawanna Valley” gather to reminisce about the 1952 state high school basketball title they won by a single point at the buzzer. Championship contemplates aging, mythmaking and the ways middle-aged, middle-class men view masculinity and success.
These days, a Broadway production of a middle-aged retread with household names in the cast comes as no surprise. The structure of the show is not much of a surprise, either: Give a bunch of middle-aged, not-especially-happy guys a bucket of chicken and unlimited booze, and it’s only a matter of time before tensions rise, secrets spill and long-harbored disappointments and resentments boil over. Then, bust out some old fight songs to make everything all better again by the end of the night.
Nevertheless, the characters–rather than director Gregory Mosher’s somewhat pedestrian staging or the predictable, confessional trajectory of the plot–carry the show. Each man is bitter in his own particular way. These are not especially likeable men–they don’t hesitate to voice their hatreds of Jews and Blacks, and all seem to have a pathological disrespect of women—but they are always honestly rendered by the playwright, who could have been a lot nastier and more condescending to them had he wanted to be.
Although the actors mostly disappear into their roles, here, their real lives add unexpected dimension to the events. Jason Patric (who plays the nihilistic alcoholic Tom Daley) is the son of the playwright, who died in 2001; his role as court jester for the evening evokes his late father’s function as the scene-setter. Kiefer Sutherland, another son of a famous father, has struggled publicly and often humiliatingly with his own alcoholism and is practically unrecognizable here as Tom’s slouched, buttoned-down brother James, whose conservative demeanor disguises profound anxiety, resentment, and disillusionment. Chris Noth brings a touch of the ingratiating Mr. Big of “Sex and the City” to his portrayal of the coldly amoral, unapologetically materialistic Phil Romano. Jim Gaffigan—better known as a stand-up comedian—plays the inept town mayor, George Sikowski, with equal amounts of obtuse, stuffed-shirt swagger and crippling doubt.
As the coach that refuses to see them as anything but glorious heroes, Brian Cox occasionally tends toward the histrionic, and sometimes forgets to suppress his British accent. But usually, he shrinks beautifully into himself. It’s clear here that for all the swaggering bravado and insistence that he’s on the mend from a ridiculously downplayed illness, Coach is dying. Offstage, Cox may be a Commander of the British Empire, but for the duration of this revival, he, like the rest of the characters, is a sad man clinging desperately to a fading, mythical past. When Coach gamely pulls his shirt up to show off the enormous scar that runs down his belly, he inadvertently reveals himself to his “boys” to be small, disoriented, and old.
The show, advertised as a “strictly limited run,” may have legs, opening as it does in the shadow of the surprise hit Lombardi. Audiences looking for the darker side of sports and a more jaundiced view of what manhood meant in the second half of the last century might want to take a look at Championship before the season ends.
TDF purchase; 2pm on 2/23/11; row G24, mezzanine.