Broadway theatre located at 242 West 45th Street in midtown Manhattan: Shots of Keifer Sutherland with fans after the 2011 performance of "That Championship Season" outside the Bernard Jacobs Theatre.
New York Times Re-printed Review
By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: March 6, 2011
“That Championship Season,” Jason Miller’s portrait of morally bankrupt men remembering their glory days as a high-school basketball team, was never what you would call a shy play. Like its liquored-up, confession-prone characters, this award-laden 1972 drama states its intentions loudly, repeatedly and often embarrassingly.
To give it the sort of extroverted, star-swollen revival that opened on Thursday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater is akin to handing Ethel Merman a megaphone. Even when voices are pitched low, Gregory Mosher’s production — which features Kiefer Sutherland (late of television’s “24”), Chris Noth, Jason Patric and Jim Gaffigan as the grown-up teammates and Brian Cox as their esteemed former coach — seems to be shouting at you. This is the sort of work in which the jingoistic old Coach says to his former players, “We are the country, boys.” And though it’s still early in the evening, your instinct is to groan, “Oh, Coach, you don’t need to tell us that.”
Being equated with the United States is not a compliment, according to Mr. Miller, who died in 2001. “That Championship Season,” which was first staged at the Public Theater before moving to Broadway, made its debut on the eve of the Watergate scandal. And it is steeped in the smell of disgust with red-white-and-blue corruption in the age of the Vietnam War. That aroma had been hanging thickly over film and theater since at least the mid-1960s, in movies like “Joe” and “Easy Rider” and plays from Edward Albee, Jean-Claude van Itallie and David Rabe, among others.
What distinguished “Season” from such antecedents — and may account for its copping both the Pulitzer Prize and theTony Award for best play — was its formal old-fashionedness. Though littered with four-letter words, “Season” has a clean, mechanical structure in which revelations arrive like well-run trains at a station. Theatergoers who felt hip enough to be lambasted for being middle-class sell-outs but not hip enough for the experimental ambiguities of an Albee play could sit back and enjoy American traditionalism being attacked in the traditional style to which they were accustomed.
Mr. Mosher, who oversaw the superb revival of Arthur Miller’s “View From the Bridge” last season, isn’t about to undermine this drama’s perverse comfort factor. As designed by Michael Yeargan, the living room in which the play is set gleams with polished, dark-wood affluence. This is Coach’s lair in the Lackawanna Valley in Pennsylvania, and it looks like a carefully preserved homestead on a historic tour.
I’m assuming this is to underline the idea of this play’s characters as museum pieces, members of a breed on the verge of extinction in a rapidly changing country. (Though the year is 1972, Mr. Cox’s Coach has been made up to look like his idol, Teddy Roosevelt, whose portrait hangs on the wall.) But all this fustiness has the side effect of drawing attention to the datedness of the play itself.
And make no mistake. “Season” appears to have been assembled according to the rule book of Playwriting 101, 1952 edition. Each of the five characters here arrives with a Personality and a Problem, both as conspicuous as a gaudy necktie, and it’s not hard to predict the conflicts that will arise and the symmetry with which they will be presented. (The first act begins and ends with a character holding a rifle.)
Mr. Gaffigan plays George Sikowski, the town mayor, who is uneasily facing re-election and is a Buffoon. Mr. Noth is Phil Romano, the town Rich Man, whose fortune comes from strip mining, and a Cad. Mr. Sutherland is James Daley, a school principal and an embittered Little Man who is tired of being small. Mr. Patric (who is Mr. Miller’s son) portrays Tom, James’s brother, a Cynical Drunk. They have gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of winning the state basketball championship and to honor Coach, who made them what they are today.
Within the show’s first 10 or 15 minutes these guys have casually linked themselves to unsavory activities that include graft, bribery, political patronage and sex (en masse) with a retarded girl in high school. Drinking copiously and slurring ethnic slurs, they are obviously not contented souls. But they have the untarnished memories of that championship season, and they have each other. Right? As Coach (whose personal heroes include both President John F. Kennedy and Senator Joseph McCarthy) tells them, it’s teamwork that keeps this country great in an era of dissension.
That myth unravels so early that much of “Season” is a matter of marking time and waiting for the big symbolic moments, like when somebody throws up into the silver victory cup. In the meantime, each character (except Tom, who mostly just snipes at the others) has a tremulous speech in which he reveals how sad he is. (Here’s George in Act II: “You think the old clown doesn’t have deep feelings, huh?”)
It’s not easy making such lines sound fresh. Mr. Cox, Mr. Noth and Mr. Patric all overact, though each overacts in his own special (and sometimes entertaining) way. Epicene and bizarrely Southern, Mr. Patric summons the spirit of Tennessee Williams’s alcoholic Brick (whom he played in the 2003 Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”). Mr. Cox, a first-rate British stage actor, here takes on the persona of a 19th-century barnstormer like Edwin Booth. Mr. Noth is just plain hammy.
Best known as a stand-up comic, Mr. Gaffigan is perhaps a shade too understated as the clownish mayor. Mr. Sutherland, in his Broadway debut, is the most credible of the lot, quietly conveying a shrunken man poisoned by passivity and resentment.
Mr. Mosher’s direction is self-consciously stagy (you can imagine the blocking directions penciled into each actor’s script), and there is little natural flow or friction among the performances. (There’s one terrific, atypical moment in which the brothers, Tom and James, signal hostility by throwing a basketball at each other.)
This is strange, since Mr. Mosher made his name with impeccably synchronized ensemble productions of plays by David Mamet. Given the participation of this director and this all-male cast, I was looking forward to “Season” as a sort of Mametian testosterone bath. At some point, though, I realized that it wasn’t a play by Mamet that “Season” recalled, but “The Boys in the Band,” Mart Crowley’s 1968 drama of unhappy homosexuals.
I mean, think about it. Both plays present an ostensibly supportive group of friends who, over the course of many drinks, turn on one another and segue into anguished confessions. Heck, there’s even an “I dare you to make that call” telephone scene in both plays. And each ends with characters revealing their profound discontent with their existential conditions. In “Boys,” of course, that’s being gay. The boys of “Season” are afflicted by the disease of being American, and as this play ponderously presents it, there’s no cure in sight.
THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON
By Jason Miller; directed by Gregory Mosher; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Scott Lehrer; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Jane Grey; production manager, Aurora Productions; general manager, Lisa M. Poyer. Presented by Robert Cole, Frederick Zollo, Shelter Island Enterprises, the Shubert Organization, James MacGilvray, Orin Wolf, the Weinstein Company, Second Chance Productions, Brannon Wiles and Scott M. Delman/Lucky VIII. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200;telecharge.com. Through May 29. Running time: two hours.
The Cast: Brian Cox (Coach), Jim Gaffigan (George Sikowski), Chris Noth (Phil Romano),Jason Patric (Tom Daley) and Kiefer Sutherland (James Daley).
Edge of seat NCLS