That Championship Season

The definition of a scandal has changed drastically over time. Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen’s escapades, which would have been shocking a few decades ago, are commonplace and even trivial nowadays. Words that would never be spoken in public are now shouted on the subway. And plays which were once awarded Tonys and Pulitzers are now disappointing and even boring revivals on Broadway.

Jason Miller’s play That Championship Season, currently in a lackluster revival at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, once fell into the former category. The story of a high school basketball team reuniting at the home of its coach, was first performed at the Public Theater and then moved to Broadway in 1973. Shocking and stimulating, it took home the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Sadly, 37 years later, the script is dated, underwhelming and a poor vehicle for a quintet of talented actors.

Directed by Gregory Mosher, who helmed the impeccable revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, this revival stars television and movie stars Brian Cox, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Noth, Jason Patric, and Kiefer Sutherland. Each of the four men have come to this reunion with their own set of conflicts and confusion, and they inevitably clash as the night progresses and the drinks are poured. Jim Gaffigan’s George is the town mayor and currently facing a re-election campaign against a charismatic Jewish man. James, played by Keifer Sutherland, is a middle school principal who hopes to enter politics by working on George’s campaign. Chris Noth’s Phil is a wealthy businessman and lothario who George hopes will fund his campaign. And Jason Patric’s Tom is an aimless drunk who has missed the past few reunions and plans to leave town immediately after this one.

The men are clearly unhappy with their lives. But they have gathered to celebrate their memories and each other. And no matter what else happens, their friendships are what matter. Right?

Brian Cox plays the Coach, who plays father to all of them and attempts to manage the adult lives of “his boys” like he did their moves on the basketball court when they were teenagers. Cox appears aimless and uncertain of his role, attempting to appear both grandeur and down-to-earth. He shares his political beliefs, which are both racist and offensive, bluntly and he is determined to help George win his re-election and continue to shape town politics from behind the scenes.

The tension between the men is spelled out clearly in the script but it does not translate to the stage. The actors all seem to be performing in different productions, overacting in different ways and with wildly different results. Gaffigan’s George is flat and ponderous, each of his lines spoken flatly and without emphasis. When he explodes with rage at Phil, the effect is lackluster and dull. Sutherland plays James as the endless underdog, emphasizing his speech impediment to the point of  unintentional comedy. Noth’s Phil is sleek and smooth and not at all different than his character of Mr. Big on Sex and the City. Patric is the standout of the cast, skillfully playing his character’s drunkenness while hinting at the character’s past. He projects a sense of self-hatred that is both tangible and heartbreaking. But with the exception of Patric, none of the actors succeed in earning the sympathy of the audience. It is difficult to care about what happens to them.

That Championship Season, which first premiered before the Watergate scandal, was poignant during the social upheaval of the time. Interestingly, the show’s original logo was a parody of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. However, the racial slurs that were shocking during that time are not nearly as arresting to hear now and the ending is anticlimactic, the violence promised during the first scene never fulfilled. The show has aged, but not nearly as well as the men acting in it.

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