nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
April 7, 2012
If you are a fan—whether a fan of good theater or a sports fan—it’s probably not a stretch to assume that you already have some opinion of the new Broadway play Magic/Bird. If you’re a theater fan, you might be scratching your head over how the story of two basketball players who played for different teams during the 1980s—two players who, in fact, only played each other twice a year, save for the three times their teams met in the NBA Finals—and produced, in part, by the very same professional sports league that once employed them, could ever make for satisfying theater. If you’re a sports fan—or, perhaps, a theater fan who loves one—you might see it differently: a light but predictably satisfying entertainment centered around the two players most often credited with saving professional basketball in the 1980s, whose rivalry became the storyline for a decade’s worth of NBA seasons, and who took on the type of mythic stature you’d expect from guys with nicknames like “Magic” and “Legend,” even as their story’s most lasting legacy is the effect on the American public when faced with the very real mortality of one of their most recognizable icons. Luckily, both of these opinions of Magic/Bird turn out to be correct.
The story of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, as told to us by playwright Eric Simonson, is framed by Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he is HIV-positive. From there, Simonson takes us back to 1979 when the two men first met on the court, as Johnson’s Michigan State team defeated Bird and Indiana State for the NCAA championship. Johnson gets drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird goes to the Boston Celtics and both become stars, setting up a rivalry that cut cleanly down lines of geography, style, aesthetics and, of course, race. Johnson was a 6’9” point guard, a position usually held by guys 6’1 or 6’2”, whose passing, scoring and versatility propelled the Lakers to 5 championships during the '80s. Bird, also blessed as a passer, played with the grit and determination you’d expect from a guy who called himself “The Hick from French Lick” (referring to the small Indiana town he called home) and, with the help of one of the sweetest shots in history, led the Celtics to three NBA titles. Johnson was likable and charismatic. Bird was taciturn and private. Johnson was black and Bird was white. It’s this similar path traveled by two players who were, in so many ways, opposites and their own journey from “hatred” (the histrionic version of “competitors”) to friendship that is the dramatic journey of this play.
Now, we can spend a long time splitting hairs over how close the actual Magic and Bird are and how much their relationship has been something that we’ve imposed back on history, but it’s probably best to stick to what we see on stage—and some of what we see is really fun. The play’s production design (by scenic designer David Korins, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Howell Binkley, sound designer Nevin Steinberg and media designer Jeff Sugg) is a real score, mostly making up for the fact that we are watching a play about basketball players whose relationship is based on playing basketball and who we don’t really ever see play basketball. The basketball moments get projected on a screen, as we see key moments in the Magic/Bird rivalry. The most effective moment of director Thomas Kail's staging comes when Bird (Tug Coker) puts on a shooting display to convince Celtics President Red Auerbach (the enjoyably versatile Peter Scolari, in one of his many roles) that a broken finger won’t affect his ability to shoot. Coker freezes in a shooting position as both he and the basket are rotated slowly creating the effect of Bird hitting shots from everywhere on the court without the ball actually leaving his hands. Scolari and Deirdre O’Connell both do grounded, engaging work as they juggle multiple characters. Coker plays Bird’s constant deadpan to largely comic effect and Kevin Daniels is every bit the charismatic scene-stealer one imagines (or remembers) Johnson to be. Simonson’s scenes are generally wooden, though one scene that involves Bird inviting Johnson over to his house for lunch with him and his mother is very charming and serves, rightly, as the heart of the entire show.
But, no, nothing is dealt with in very much depth. The racial elements of the Magic/Bird feud are widely glossed over (except as “white fans like Bird and black fans like Magic”), as is Johnson’s HIV-diagnosis. That part of the story is used a little too manipulatively to give weight to a play that, otherwise, recounts how a couple of guys felt about each other over the course of their professional basketball careers. Without any real interest in dealing with the complexities of the Magic/Bird relationship (and there are some that could make for good theater) we are left with a show that is more like a Living History show at a theme park than good theater dollars well-spent. In fact, the lack of actual drama in the scenes—its aversion to saying or suggesting anything that anyone represented on stage or currently working in league offices might object to—unfortunately reduces the show to an advertisement for the NBA (and, possibly, for the show’s producers). Commercials can make good watching ... at 30 seconds, but at 90 minutes, Magic/Bird, while pleasant, misses out on the dramatic on-court magic that turned these players into legends.