The most exciting moment in "That Championship Season" comes when Jason Patric's character, Tom, falls down a flight of stairs. For a couple of seconds, you're involved in what's happening: Wow, that was something! Is he OK? How long did he have to rehearse that stunt?
And then it's right back to sleep.
Jason Miller's "That Championship Season" was showered with awards back in 1973: a Tony for Best Play, a Pulitzer Prize. Yet this ham-fisted drama about basketball teammates reuniting 20 years after winning the state high school trophy has aged so badly -- the absent women, for instance, are typically described as whores -- that these accolades seem baffling today.
To resuscitate this play, we needed an A team. But Gregory Mosher's star-studded production -- the cast also includes Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth and Jim Gaffigan -- is a train wreck. Actually, that implies some kind of momentum, of which there's none onstage, aside from Patric's tumble.
The four men are celebrating their victory's anniversary at the house of their former coach (Brian Cox), an Archie Bunker-like fount of bigoted idiocy.
Sadly, the long-ago event remains the emotional high point of everybody's life. Sutherland's James is a milquetoast junior-high principal who's also running the re-election campaign of Gaffigan's George, their small town's mayor. Noth's Phil is a cocky businessman while Patric's Tom is entirely defined by his drinking.
Playing against type in his Broadway debut, Sutherland can be subtly effective, but mostly the inert cast doesn't succeed in making the conflicts feel anything but manufactured: Phil sleeps with George's wife and supports George's rival, and the more drinks they all throw back, the testier they get.
Patric -- the playwright's son -- is the lone bright spot as he tries to create an actual character despite having little to work with. Fueled by booze and disillusioned despair, Tom at times looks like one of the bitter gay men in "The Boys in the Band." It's an intriguing bit of subtext that's fun to ponder and helps pass the time.
This tantalizing bit goes nowhere, though: The second-half revelation -- a staple of reunion stories -- isn't about Tom's sexuality but the team's missing fifth man. Like every other plot point, it fizzles out. This isn't "The Big Chill" but "The Big Pill."
In the right hands, "That Championship Season" could be a bitter cautionary tale about prejudice and how achievements can rest on illusions. As it is, the final buzzer can't come soon enough.
“That Championship Season,” Jason Miller’s portrait of morally bankrupt men remembering their glory days as a high-school basketball team, was never what you would call a shy play. Like its liquored-up, confession-prone characters, this award-laden 1972 drama states its intentions loudly, repeatedly and often embarrassingly.
To give it the sort of extroverted, star-swollen revival that opened on Thursday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater is akin to handing Ethel Merman a megaphone. Even when voices are pitched low, Gregory Mosher’s production — which features Kiefer Sutherland (late of television’s “24”), Chris Noth, Jason Patric and Jim Gaffigan as the grown-up teammates and Brian Cox as their esteemed former coach — seems to be shouting at you. This is the sort of work in which the jingoistic old Coach says to his former players, “We are the country, boys.” And though it’s still early in the evening, your instinct is to groan, “Oh, Coach, you don’t need to tell us that.”
Being equated with the United States is not a compliment, according to Mr. Miller, who died in 2001. “That Championship Season,” which was first staged at the Public Theater before moving to Broadway, made its debut on the eve of the Watergate scandal. And it is steeped in the smell of disgust with red-white-and-blue corruption in the age of the Vietnam War. That aroma had been hanging thickly over film and theater since at least the mid-1960s, in movies like “Joe” and “Easy Rider” and plays from Edward Albee, Jean-Claude van Itallie and David Rabe, among others.
What distinguished “Season” from such antecedents — and may account for its copping both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play — was its formal old-fashionedness. Though littered with four-letter words, “Season” has a clean, mechanical structure in which revelations arrive like well-run trains at a station. Theatergoers who felt hip enough to be lambasted for being middle-class sell-outs but not hip enough for the experimental ambiguities of an Albee play could sit back and enjoy American traditionalism being attacked in the traditional style to which they were accustomed.
Mr. Mosher, who oversaw the superb revival of Arthur Miller’s “View From the Bridge” last season, isn’t about to undermine this drama’s perverse comfort factor. As designed by Michael Yeargan, the living room in which the play is set gleams with polished, dark-wood affluence. This is Coach’s lair in the Lackawanna Valley in Pennsylvania, and it looks like a carefully preserved homestead on a historic tour.
I’m assuming this is to underline the idea of this play’s characters as museum pieces, members of a breed on the verge of extinction in a rapidly changing country. (Though the year is 1972, Mr. Cox’s Coach has been made up to look like his idol, Teddy Roosevelt, whose portrait hangs on the wall.) But all this fustiness has the side effect of drawing attention to the datedness of the play itself.
And make no mistake. “Season” appears to have been assembled according to the rule book of Playwriting 101, 1952 edition. Each of the five characters here arrives with a Personality and a Problem, both as conspicuous as a gaudy necktie, and it’s not hard to predict the conflicts that will arise and the symmetry with which they will be presented. (The first act begins and ends with a character holding a rifle.)
Mr. Gaffigan plays George Sikowski, the town mayor, who is uneasily facing re-election and is a Buffoon. Mr. Noth is Phil Romano, the town Rich Man, whose fortune comes from strip mining, and a Cad. Mr. Sutherland is James Daley, a school principal and an embittered Little Man who is tired of being small. Mr. Patric (who is Mr. Miller’s son) portrays Tom, James’s brother, a Cynical Drunk. They have gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of winning the state basketball championship and to honor Coach, who made them what they are today.
Within the show’s first 10 or 15 minutes these guys have casually linked themselves to unsavory activities that include graft, bribery, political patronage and sex (en masse) with a retarded girl in high school. Drinking copiously and slurring ethnic slurs, they are obviously not contented souls. But they have the untarnished memories of that championship season, and they have each other. Right? As Coach (whose personal heroes include both President John F. Kennedy and Senator Joseph McCarthy) tells them, it’s teamwork that keeps this country great in an era of dissension.
That myth unravels so early that much of “Season” is a matter of marking time and waiting for the big symbolic moments, like when somebody throws up into the silver victory cup. In the meantime, each character (except Tom, who mostly just snipes at the others) has a tremulous speech in which he reveals how sad he is. (Here’s George in Act II: “You think the old clown doesn’t have deep feelings, huh?”)
It’s not easy making such lines sound fresh. Mr. Cox, Mr. Noth and Mr. Patric all overact, though each overacts in his own special (and sometimes entertaining) way. Epicene and bizarrely Southern, Mr. Patric summons the spirit of Tennessee Williams’s alcoholic Brick (whom he played in the 2003 Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”). Mr. Cox, a first-rate British stage actor, here takes on the persona of a 19th-century barnstormer like Edwin Booth. Mr. Noth is just plain hammy.
Best known as a stand-up comic, Mr. Gaffigan is perhaps a shade too understated as the clownish mayor. Mr. Sutherland, in his Broadway debut, is the most credible of the lot, quietly conveying a shrunken man poisoned by passivity and resentment.
Mr. Mosher’s direction is self-consciously stagy (you can imagine the blocking directions penciled into each actor’s script), and there is little natural flow or friction among the performances. (There’s one terrific, atypical moment in which the brothers, Tom and James, signal hostility by throwing a basketball at each other.)
This is strange, since Mr. Mosher made his name with impeccably synchronized ensemble productions of plays by David Mamet. Given the participation of this director and this all-male cast, I was looking forward to “Season” as a sort of Mametian testosterone bath. At some point, though, I realized that it wasn’t a play by Mamet that “Season” recalled, but “The Boys in the Band,” Mart Crowley’s 1968 drama of unhappy homosexuals.
I mean, think about it. Both plays present an ostensibly supportive group of friends who, over the course of many drinks, turn on one another and segue into anguished confessions. Heck, there’s even an “I dare you to make that call” telephone scene in both plays. And each ends with characters revealing their profound discontent with their existential conditions. In “Boys,” of course, that’s being gay. The boys of “Season” are afflicted by the disease of being American, and as this play ponderously presents it, there’s no cure in sight.
Since it is now an article of faith that you need big stars to finance a straight play on Broadway, it definitely helps to have Kiefer Sutherland ("24") and Chris Noth ("The Good Wife") on board for this revival of "That Championship Season." Scribe Jason Miller won the Tony, the Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his 1972 drama about the explosive reunion of a high school basketball team 20 years after winning the state championship. But the stars are just as stymied as the rest of the ensemble by the play's schematic structure and transparent characters.
In the postwar years of the 1950s, when we thought better of ourselves as a nation, there was little awareness that those all-American sports ethics of team pride, class loyalty and the will to win could mask such base impulses as bigotry, racism, and the ruthless resolve to triumph at any cost. So there should be something both sad and shocking about the meticulous way that Miller goes about demolishing the reputation of the high school heroes who brought glory to Scranton, Pa., when they won the 1952 state basketball championship.
"Life's a game," Coach (Brian Cox) reminds his "boys" when they gather for their annual reunion at his home (a gloomy museum of dated decor and dusty mementoes in Michael Yeargan's ultra-naturalistic design). In truth, he did more than teach them how to play the game of basketball; he passed on his values for winning at the game of life.
Unfortunately, there are no nuances to the character revelations that Miller makes to illustrate the shabby nature of Coach's civics lessons. The more they drink (and these grown men knock back their drinks with the reckless abandon of teenagers), the uglier their confessions of cruel deeds, immoral behavior, and acts of outright criminal dishonesty.
In breathless bursts of exposition, we learn that George (Jim Gaffigan), the town's joke of a mayor, routinely bends the law for cronies; that Phil (Noth), an unscrupulous businessman, made his fortune from strip-mining; that James (Sutherland), a high-school principal, has been corrupted by political patronage; and his misanthropic brother Tom (Jason Patric) is a hopeless drunk.
Along with all his other lessons in manhood, Coach also passed on (in the most vile language) his hatred of women, blacks, Jews, "fellow travelers," and anyone else who dares challenge his boys' supremacy or deny them the right to win this dirty game on their own terms.
But the players on this team have no individuality beyond the central character defect that defines each one of them. And Coach's rallying cry -- "We are the country, boys" -- is a pretty blunt metaphor for their collective identity.
With so little dimension to the characters, it's hard to fault the thesps for their competent but superficial perfs. Tom's drunken despair gives Patric (the playwright's son) a more sympathetic character hook. And the sheer breadth of Phil's sins gives Noth more sides to play.
But what this ensemble really lacks is team identity. Watching these bad boys turn on one another loses impact because helmer Gregory Mosher fails to establish the sense of easy intimacy that only comes from knowing someone your whole life.
As a group, the boys don't have the size or the soft, bloated look of athletic bodies gone to seed in early middle age. It doesn't help that the rigid division of furniture in Coach's overstuffed living room offers nowhere for them to sit together as a group to drink, talk, and horse around. But the main thing that's missing is the sound of laughter that lets us know what kind of team they were before the rot set in.
In Jason Miller's 1972 play That Championship Season, four former high school basketball teammates reunite 20 years later in their old coach's home. As the liquor flows, conversation turns to the jobs and relationships, concerns and frustrations that have defined — and linked — their adult lives.
You don't have to be a psychiatrist or a prophet to know that this won't end prettily.
In the new Broadway revival of Season (* * ½ out of four), which opened Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, a starry cast that includes Miller's son Jason Patric reintroduces these no-longer-young men. Over two boozy hours (in the short first act, virtually every other line seems to be an invitation to imbibe), they revisit old grievances and form new ones, gradually tearing to shreds both past glories and present accomplishments.
Along the way, the ex-athletes and coach examine and excoriate aspects of the changing world around them. Their blunt, rancorous swipes at Jews, communists, African Americans and women remind us that the fear-based intolerance some observe in our own unstable times has deep roots.
To say that Season hasn't lost its edge or topicality is not to proclaim it a timeless classic. The arguments and diatribes fueling the play seldom encourage reflection, and like real-life drunken banter, can grow tedious. But under Gregory Mosher's sensitive, rigorous direction, this production is at least a showcase for the theatrical talents of several actors better known for their film and TV work.
Patric and Kiefer Sutherland play siblings Tom and James Daley, respectively an aimless alcoholic and an earnest, self-sacrificing school principal. Each performer cannily charts his character's evolution under the influence: Tom's from a passive bystander to a bitter critic of the others' hypocrisy, James' from a bookish appeaser to a man capable of rage and even spite.
As the more intrinsically hot-blooded businessman Phil Romano, Chris Noth is predictably charismatic and funny, but also reveals the insecurity and lack of purpose underlying Phil's crass, arrogant behavior. Similarly, comedian Jim Gaffigan finds an awkward sweetness and repressed sadness in George Sikowski, a buffoonish, epithet-spewing politician.
But the most flamboyant role in Season is that of the fellow simply referred to as Coach. The older man, who still fancies himself a protector and teacher to the "boys," is assigned the play's loftiest speeches and some of its most hateful invective, and venerable Scottish trouper Brian Cox invests him with a feverish energy and emotional heft befitting the Shakespearean heroes he has tackled in the past.
Sadly, Cox's effort and skill only underscore that Coach is not King Lear, just as neither the younger characters nor the play itself inspires comparisons to weightier stuff.
Season is nonetheless a capably crafted and solidly acted show — not to mention a sobering reminder of the dangers of overindulging at cocktail parties.