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‘That Championship Season’

Jason Patric stars in a restaging of his father’s Pulitzer-winning Broadway hit, which despite polish and an able cast, hasn’t aged well.

A drama about the bitter recriminations of a generation of men stung by the reality of their diminished promise and feeling let down by their leaders should strike chords in this rudderless age of epidemic disillusionment. So why does this deluxe revival of such a celebrated play as That Championship Season fall flat?

Returning to Broadway after a decade’s absence, director Gregory Mosher  reminded us last season what a gifted sculptor of ensemble drama and excavator of textual depths he can be in his staging of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. This time, the helmer plants his actors on Michael Yeargan’s handsome set and drills them through their paces. But they fail to get under their characters’ skin or the audience’s in a play that seems past its expiration date.

That’s an ungratifying opinion to report given the poignant backstory. First produced to critical acclaim in 1972, the play won the Pulitzer and Tony that season, the same year playwright Jason Miller was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his role as Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist. Like his characters, who reunite once a year to revisit a shining moment of their youth unequaled in later life, Miller and his subsequent achievements were more modest. He died of a heart attack in 2001 at age 62.

Miller’s son, Jason Patric, controls rights to the play and was instrumental in bringing together elements of this production, giving himself the role of cynical alcoholic Tom Daley. The evident intention to honor his father’s memory makes the play’s ineffectiveness even sadder.

Tom is one of four players from a high school basketball team that won the Pennsylvania state championship in 1952. They have gathered at the home of their former coach (Brian Cox) every year since to relive the glory. Their enduring fondness for the coach is perhaps because he’s the one person who still sees them in terms of their potential.

This comforting self-deception is harder to maintain now that the lads are pushing 40 and racking up disappointments. “It’s like halftime,” Tom says with derision. The familiar theatrical truth serum of free-flowing booze brings betrayals and ugly admissions bubbling to the surface, and the absence of a fifth player exposes the hollowness of that long-ago triumph.

As George, comedian Jim Gaffigan conveys the pathos of a man aware he’s not the brightest yet wounded by his friends’ wavering support. Chris Noth oozes cockiness and negotiable loyalty as Phil, the materialistic businessman and serial philanderer whose conquests include George’s wife. Playing against type in his Broadway debut, Kiefer Sutherland  brings nervous, wiry intensity to James Daley, Tom’s resentful, underachieving brother. Cox strikes the right notes of forced bluster and creeping desperation, and Patric’s drunk sneers from the sidelines.

If they lack the cohesion and mutual understanding of an ideal ensemble, the actors do nail their characters. It’s just that their characters are not very interesting. With all their self-pity, these Nixon-era bigots just come across as tedious whiners. Material that should be explosive plays mechanically — as the men literally take turns articulating their fears and failures or venting their hatred in angry rants. Their racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny no doubt made all this unflinching and provocative four decades ago. But David Mamet  and many others have since explored this particular crisis zone — of masculinity, morality and mediocrity in a success-obsessed culture — with more style and sharper teeth.           

Venue Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York (Through May 29)
Cast Brian Cox, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Noth, Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland
Playwright Jason Miller
Director Gregory Mosher