Paden Fallis' solo show The Play About the Coach ventures into authentically unusual terrain for a work of theater; I've certainly never seen anything remotely like it. As the title suggests, Fallis portrays a coach—specifically, the leader of a college basketball team that has made it into "March Madness," the NCAA Quarter Finals.
Although it begins with a prologue that introduces us to the Coach after the game, the bulk of the play depicts the last 3 minutes of the game itself. We experience it vicariously as the Coach does, as he watches the team, calls time outs, argues and/or banters with the referee, berates and/or rallies his players, and deals with a variety of other issues and distractions during these crucial final minutes. Our first view of the Coach in that prologue—tie loosened, shirt askew, jacket thrown on the ground along with his belt—indicates that the game turned out badly. The play supplies the story of how things went so amiss, and how this man became so desperate and full of anguish.
It is a tour de force for Fallis the actor. Under Tamara Fisch's direction, the performance is precise and detailed and absorbingly physical. Though Fallis is alone onstage except for a chair and a few props, he creates the entire world of the game for us to experience in our mind's eye. When he calls a time out, we see the players—Graham, Carter, Brad, Nimitz, and the newly nicknamed Smokey—huddle around him; when he crouches down on one knee to gaze intently at the game in progress, even if we can't exactly see the moves on the court, we can see that he sees them. And when it comes time for us to understand just how it is that the Coach lost his belt, the raw fury of the moment is almost frightening in its intensity.
Gennaro Marletta is the other MVP in this production, for creating a sound design that serves the piece beautifully without ever overpowering it. Tim McMath's set is spare but evocative, and Gillian Wolpert's lighting helps separate moments happening inside the Coach's head from the reality of the game in progress.
Ultimately, The Play About the Coach is a harrowing and provocative exploration of what we value, or should be valuing, in contemporary culture. Near the climax of the piece, the Coach tells one of his players:
Don't let them fool you into thinking it's about the competing. Don't think it's about the effort. Winning is the point.
The toll that such an attitude can take on a man is the thrust of the play. I wished, though, that the script was both more generic (being someone who doesn't follow basketball at all, I often felt a bit excluded from moments in the story) and more specific: there are lots of unanswered questions in the script—who keeps phoning the Coach, and why is this person calling during the final minutes of a crucial game? what's the significance of the Coach's need for eyedrops? what are we to make of the Coach's constant literary references, to Shakespeare, the Bible, and others? While these details make the character complex and interesting, they didn't feel like they added up to a complete portrait of someone I could understand. And the takeaway, after a grueling and energetic hour, didn't feel sufficient given all that had gone on.
I suspect that basketball fans may feel differently; and in any event, Fallis' work is remarkable and well worth the concise hour-long running time. The Play About the Coach is compelling theater, and a fine exemplar of the acting craft.