Magic/Bird: Theater Review

Tug Coker and Kevin Daniels
Two basketball Hall of Famers get warm but dramatically insubstantial treatment in Eric Simonson's account of their decade at the top.

The glory years of NBA superstars Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird are affectionately recalled in Eric Simonson's bio-play, from the same Broadway producing team as last season's NFL-backed sports drama "Lombardi."

NEW YORK – Sports and Broadway are infrequent bedfellows and Magic/Bird offers no major incentive to change that. There’s promising material in the professional rivalry and enduring friendship of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, and in the two players’ transformative impact on the league at a time when National Basketball Association games were suffering from low attendance and poor television coverage. But there’s little to suggest that theater is the right medium to explore all that. Playwright Eric Simonson’s bio-patchwork is a dutiful assembly, a wispy tribute that gives only sketchy insights into these exceptional athletes.

Lead producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo teamed last season with the National Football League on Lombardi, also written by Simonson and directed by Thomas Kail, about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. That play eked out a seven-month run despite mixed reviews and modest business, and was credited with driving fresh traffic to Broadway.

PHOTOS: 26 of Hollywood's Most Popular Athletes-Turned-Actors

Repeating the same commercial formula, the new venture has NBA backing and makes smart use of game footage of Johnson’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Bird’s, the Boston Celtics, as they alternated championship wins through the 1980s. The production also benefits from Kail’s skills as a physical director; in addition to Lombardi, his Broadway credits include the Tony-winning, high-energy musical In the Heights. He keeps the scenes mostly tight, and oversees dynamic shifts through 13 years of action across various locations. Jeff Sugg’s projections provide an invaluable assist while set designer David Korins’ descending hoops allow for some minimal court moves.

The attention-grabbing opening – with much fanfare accompanying the presentation of the six-member cast wearing tracksuits, in the style of NBA game starters – indicates a degree of sports-minded theatrical imagination at work. But the insurmountable problem for Simonson is that listening to people talk about the excitement of a game – albeit with a few clips – is no match for experiencing it.

He also faces an unenviable balancing act in terms of the play’s twin portraits. It makes for an interesting union of opposites that Magic (Kevin Daniels) is a beloved, gregarious figure drawn to the spotlight, while Larry (Tug Coker) is a laconic, intensely private Midwesterner, dubbed “the hick from French Lick.” The height-appropriate actors both do a solid job of capturing their character’s personality and physicality, as verified in an amusing 1985 commercial for Converse sneakers. Still, as protagonists in a play, it’s an unfair contest. Daniels is a charismatic, animating presence who turns up the wattage whenever he’s centerstage, while Coker’s Larry remains taciturn, stiff and remote.

Predisposed fans who bring their own affection for the two players and knowledge of that electrifying decade in NBA history may get what they came for, even if Magic/Bird tells them little they didn’t already know. However, audiences looking for conflict, probing character development or dramatic tension are likely to be underwhelmed.

The action is roughly framed by a call from Magic to Larry, following the former’s 1991 announcement of his initial retirement from the sport after contracting the HIV virus. But while Simonson touches on the stigma that Johnson faced after that revelation, at a time of widespread ignorance concerning HIV/AIDS, the play tends to tiptoe perfunctorily around its issues rather than really explore them.

Racial friction in pro basketball surfaces, notably in Boston, where the heavy quota of white players recruited by irascible Celtics coach Red Auerbach (Peter Scolari, overplaying the growl) caused many local black sports fans to direct their support elsewhere. That tension is dealt with in static scenes in a Boston sports bar, weakened by uneven performances from the multitasking support ensemble.

The heart of the play is a scene in which Larry extends an invitation from his mother (the always dependable Deirdre O’Connell) to Magic to join them at home for lunch while the two men are filming the Converse ad in Indiana. Details are revealed from their parallel humble upbringings in large families, the lessons learned from their fathers, and the differences as well as the overlaps in their personal ethics. The bond is drawn without undue sentimentality. There’s also poignancy in Larry’s increasing difficulties with congenital back problems, illustrated in a series of painful falls shown in late-career game clips.

An exchange between the two superstars in Barcelona after winning gold as part of the 1992 Olympics “Dream Team” provides a touching coda. But too often the succession of conversations the players have with coaches, team owners, agents, teammates and press seems less like a satisfyingly developed drama than a cobbled-together Wikipedia outline with game excerpts.

I confess to being clueless about basketball, but I’m open to any sports drama that tells a compelling story. Hell, I was glued to five seasons of Friday Night Lights despite having scant understanding of the rules of American football, and felt a wrenching separation from those characters when the series ended. Magic/Bird piqued my interest in seeing a more illuminating documentary about their lives and careers, but it fails to weave those elements into anything more than a mildly engaging drama. (The two players’ history was notably covered in the HBO film, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, while Johnson’s story was more recently chronicled in ESPN’s The Announcement.)

This is not really a play so much as a salute to two sports heroes of yesteryear. Their love of the game and honorable behavior toward each other despite their rivalry on the court now makes them stand apart from the contemporary stereotype of the arrogant, overpaid pro athlete, living large and chasing celebrity tail. For nostalgic fans, that might be enough to encourage them to overlook the dramatic shortcomings.

Venue: Longacre Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast: Kevin Daniels, Tug Coker, Deirdre O’Connell, Peter Scolari, Francois Battiste, Robert Manning Jr.

Playwright: Eric Simonson

Director: Thomas Kail

Set designer: David Korins

Costume designer: Paul Tazewell

Lighting designer: Howell Binkley

Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg

Media designer: Jeff Sugg

Presented by Fran Kirmser, Tony Ponturo, W. Scott McGraw, John Mara Jr., Tamara Tunie/Jeffrey Donovan, Friends of Magic Bird, in association with National Basketball Association