March 16, 2011

"That Championship Season" Fails to Score

The rap on the current revival of That Championship Season, which opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre last week, is that the play is outdated.  Which seems a silly thing to say.  I mean how up-to-date is The Importance of Being Earnest, which has been averaging 90% capacity at the huge American Airlines Theatre?  (Click here to read critic Peter Filichia's smart take on the datedness debate) Nope, the problem with That Championship Season is simply that this production isn’t as good as it should be.

Jason Miller’s 1972 play tells the contemporaneous story of the reunion of a basketball team and its coach some 20 years after winning their state’s championship, still the highlight of all their lives. Written during the social upheavals of the Vietnam War, the play's theme is the declining hegemony of the white American male. It ran for 700 performances and won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. 

The cast back then included such everyman types as Charles Durning and Paul Sorvino. So when my husband K saw the poster with the GQ-ready cover boys in the current cast—Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric (both of whom once dated Julia Roberts) Chris Noth and Jim Gaffigan with Brian Cox as the coach—he bailed on seeing the show. I went anyway.  As is so often the case, K turned out to be right.

That Championship Season is a show whose success depends, even more than most shows do, on its cast.  Given the economic realities of Broadway, the producers clearly felt they had to opt for celebrity names.  Some of them work well. But at least one doesn’t at all. 

Gaffigan, the stand-up comedian who’s the least known of the bunch and the one who looks as though he would have had the easiest time fitting in with the original 1972 cast, is the best. He brings an authentic eager-to-please quality to the player who winds up being the hapless mayor of the team’s working-class Pennsylvania town. 

Sutherland, probably the biggest draw because of his years on the TV series “24,” gets points for playing against his alpha-male image and turning in a convincing performance as a week-kneed and two-faced 
high school principal.  

Noth plays the team member who has turned out to be the most successful, albeit at sleazy business deals and tacky love affairs, and after years as Mr. Big on "Sex and the City" and now the philandering husband on "The Good Wife," he knows how to play charming rogues.  And stage vet Cox is OK as the coach (click here to read an interview with him).

That leaves Patric, and he is by far the weakest link.  He was supposed to be the MVP. For he is the playwright’s son and plays the character Miller clearly designed to be his own stand-in (click here to listen to a terrific NPR interview in which Patric talk about his dad).   

Patric’s character is the only one of the group who has moved out of town and so has a bit of an outsider’s perspective.  But Patric’s performance is so disconnected from the other actors that his guy seems at times as though he were still in an entirely different state.

Director Gregory Mosher struggles to turn his five actors into a cohesive team but the tone staggers all over the place. What’s prompted the “outdated” talk are the many racist and sexist things the men say. The overt bigotry no doubt shocked audiences back then.  The feminist friend who agreed to see the show with me after K backed out said later, over a post-show dinner at nearby Ça Va, that she would have walked out if she’d seen it back then. 

But the brutish behavior that the team members display is no longer fresh nor revelatory and so the audience isn’t quite sure what to make of it. I heard gasps, laughs, grunts of disgusts and some yawns too. That makes the job harder for the directors and actors who have to dig even deeper into the hollowness of these men.  But this production just skates across the surface. 

Star gazers will no doubt enjoy seeing Patric, Sutherland and Noth onstage but for us theater lovers, there’s less to cheer about.

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