That Championship Season
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
March 10, 2011
“I don’t care, you know. The truth is I don’t care about the melodrama of your life.” These lines are spoken by Jason Patric as the character Tom Daley approximately three fourths of the way through the current Broadway revival of That Championship Season, written by Jason Miller, Patric’s real life father. As I heard this being said I couldn’t help but reflect upon my own feelings about this production. I truly wanted to care. The actors, designers, and director are all accomplished professionals doing fine work. But it just seems like something is missing.
Here’s the story. Five men, four former basketball players and their coach, meet annually at the coach’s home to celebrate their improbable underdog victory in 1952 as Pennsylvania state basketball champions. The play occurs on the twentieth anniversary, when the coach has retired and the players are in midlife crisis. With the help of copious consumption of beer and whiskey, the present lives of these men are laid bare in all their raw emotions of inadequacy, anxiety, and despair. One player, George Sikowski (played by Jim Gaffigan), is the inept laughingstock mayor of the town who is up for re-election. Another, Phil Romano (Chris Noth), is a rich philandering businessman wavering in his support of George. A third, James Daley (Kiefer Sutherland), is a frustrated high school principal who manages George’s campaign but has political aspirations of his own. Patric’s character, James Daley’s younger brother Tom, is an alcoholic ne'er-do-well intent on drunkenly commenting on the proceedings. The Coach (Brian Cox) meantime serves as the glue trying to keep his charges’ now tenuous bonds from unraveling. Through the evening, revelations are made, punches are thrown, tears are shed, guns are threatened, in vino veritas, as these men try to come to terms with Life and youthful promise gone awry.
Back in 1972 when it premiered, this play caused a sensation, winning a Pulitzer Prize and then a Tony Award, as an open and frank depiction of waning white male power during the reign of Richard Nixon. This sort of behind-the-bravado look at what makes men tick was novel and interesting. But we have been through so much as a society in these last forty years that it is hard to take the tenets of the play seriously. It is kind of quaint that these men are anxious about being thirty-eight years old, but in the context of today, when lives are longer lived and midlife career changes are more the norm, such sentiment is mostly amusing.
So, okay, let’s just think of it as a slice-of-life period piece. After all, there are plenty of plays that stand alone as successful windows into past ages. And there is at least one universal truth in the play’s thesis that resonates nicely today: good, solid friendship is important; you may need to work at it, but it is worthwhile. As the Coach says, “Love one another, boys. No way a man can do it alone. Got to belong to something more than yourself.” It’s a nice conclusion for the play, and leaves a warm feeling just before the curtain call.
But for me it wasn’t enough. Despite the fine acting and particularly nuanced performances, I found myself not really caring about these characters. I guess I wish that in the beginning there was more to like about these men before the stuff we don’t like about them is revealed. Yet upon re-reading the play, I think the material is there. Something just wasn’t translating across the footlights into the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
After much thought, I think it is a directorial problem. Don’t get me wrong, the play is well staged by Gregory Mosher. I just think that Mosher could have encouraged some deeper mining of emotional underpinnings by these actors. On the page, the play reads as a passionate metaphysical struggle among men desperate to salvage what they fear are lives wasting away. On this stage, the stakes just do not translate as high as playwright Miller seems to have envisioned. We never really buy into the purported emotional climaxes, whether brawling or bawling, mewling or mauling. With a few exceptions, most notably Sutherland’s heartfelt work, Mosher seems to have been content to keep things intelligently acted with rarely revealing profound pain. I believe the actors were feeling these emotions, but the director hasn’t adequately been the audience barometer to ensure that we have the visceral experience.
I really, really wanted to like this production, but for me things fell a bit flat. I don’t not recommend it, as all the actors are very good. Just don’t go with my expectations for viewing a gut raw view of “the melodrama of your life.”