That Championship Season – Theater Review
NEW YORK -- A drama about the bitter recriminations of a generation of men stung by the reality of their diminished promise and feeling let down by both their leaders and their peers 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 last season reminded us what a gifted sculptor of ensemble drama and excavator of textual depths he can be in his superlative staging of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. This time, the director 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 back-story. First produced to critical acclaim in 1972, the play won both 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's subsequent achievements were more modest. He died of a heart attack in 2001, aged 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, while the ailing coach clings to the belief that his training built the boys for success.
Those comforting self-deceptions are harder to maintain now that the lads are pushing 40 and racking up disappointments. "It's like half-time," says Tom with typical offhand derision. The familiar theatrical truth serum of free-flowing booze brings lies, betrayals and ugly admissions bubbling to the surface, while the key absence of a fifth player ultimately exposes the hollowness of that long-ago triumph.
As class clown George, facing a tricky re-election campaign for Mayor, standup comic 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, environmental menace 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, whose ambitions were impeded by family responsibility. Cox strikes the right notes of forced bluster and creeping desperation, and Patric sneers from the sidelines as the sloppy drunk who doesn't care enough to keep up the pretense.
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 about unfulfilled lives in a world that's no longer theirs for the taking, these Nixon-era bigots just come across as tedious whiners.
Material that should be raw and explosive instead plays mechanically. As the men literally take turns articulating their fears and failures, or venting their hatred in angry rants amid the emotional debris of act two, their despair seems manufactured. Their unashamed 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
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Presented by Robert Cole, Frederick Zollo, Shelter Island Enterprises, The Shubert Organization, James MacGilvray, Orin Wolf, The Weinstein Company, Second Chance Productions, Brannon Wiles, Scott M. Delman/Lucky VIII