Thursday, April 14, 2011

Theater Review: That Championship Season

We can only hope that Coach (Brian Cox) is not speaking for us when he confidently and emphatically tells members of his former basketball team, “We are the country, boys.” The occasion here is the star-studded revival of Jason Miller’s play, That Championship Season, now at New York’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. And what we quickly discover during the exposition of this fine work, which was awarded both the Tony Award for Best Play and the coveted Pulitzer Prize when it was first produced in 1973, is that the determination to be victorious is essentially a cover for a winning team’s insecurities, flaws and biases.

What sets the play, under the skillful direction of Gregory Mosher, in motion is the annual reunion of four members of a high school basketball team with their former coach. It has become customary to hold a party each year to celebrate the Interstate High School basketball championship, which was awarded to the Fillmore High School team in 1952. The setting, designed by Michael Yeargan and deftly lit by Peter Kaczorowski, is a musty, old-fashioned living room with a staircase, positioned near the rear of the stage, which leads to the second floor. The house, a property he at one time most likely shared with his mother, now belongs to Coach (Brian Cox), a former high-school basketball instructor who is hosting the annual celebration.

When the play begins, the invited teammates, now in their late 30s, appear exuberant. The men slap one another on the back and perform push-ups to show how young they feel and how agile they’ve remained. However, Miller, the author, a young, very disillusioned man at the time he was writing the play, was dismayed by the recent war, an extremely weak economy, rampant political corruption and a proliferating drug trade. And so, it’s not long before the joviality at the gathering begins to wane and, eventually, erode.

It certainly doesn’t take any prompting or persuasion to have the thundering, loquacious coach begin to blatantly rage against protest. “Dissension,” he shouts, “is destroying the country, tearing it apart.” And yet, he spouts hateful slogans as he defames minorities and political opponents. He insists that “we are the country, boys,” and he pleads with the men to remain close. “But no dissension, none, stick together.” However, while the coach rails against disagreement and protest, we soon discover that controversy here in inevitable. All of these “boys” (suitably outfitted by Jane Greenwood) most certainly have secrets that are slowly and, at times, painfully revealed as the play advances. Most damning is the fact that the cherished prize itself was ill-gotten.

Coach is anything but reticent about his narrow-mindedness, and it is chilling to listen to him zealously echo the polluted, slimy slogans of his sacrosanct idol, Father Coughlin, the notoriously hateful, bigoted priest who, in the 1950s, distributed fascistic, anti-Semitic, discriminatory pamphlets in New York’s Fordham Road section of the Bronx. “Government gone bad,” he laments, “and there’s no McCarthy to protect us.” George Sikowski (Jim Gaffigan) is the town’s ineffectual, vulnerable mayor who is in danger of losing the next election to a Jewish liberal. James Daley (Kiefer Sutherland), George’s campaign manager, appears as the loathsome high school principal whose son despises him. Their financial advisor, Phil Romano (Chris Noth), inelegantly referred to as “the dumb Dago,” portrays an adulterous, alcoholic braggart. And Tom Daley (Jason Patric, the late playwright’s son) plays James’s brother, a constantly inebriated cynic, who must be revived at intervals by his brother. The only member of the team who refuses to attend the annual event is the chap who scored the winning basket during the last seconds of the game. However, the startling reason for his absence is not revealed until moments before the final curtain.

Except for the coach, none of these “boys” still believes in the hackneyed slogans about fair play, sportsmanship and the importance of winning. And as the play progresses and secrets are uncovered, the proceedings become more actively physical: an inebriated guest falls down the staircase; one man loses several teeth after he is pitilessly slapped across the face; an altercation ensues when a rifle is removed from its rack; and, most ironic, the championship trophy itself is used as a receptacle when one of the sodden men regurgitates. All of these “boys” have willingly stooped to sustain the ethical deterioration of their community. And the play itself essentially provides an unconventional, cruel description of moral decline and superficial unscrupulousness in a small town. However, it is certainly gratifying that That Championship Season, in revival, continues to provide a powerful theatrical experience.

This production of That Championship Season is scheduled to close after the performance on May 29, 2011.