Friday, March 11, 2011

A Winning 'Season'


The cast of That Championship Season (photo by Joan Marcus)

That Championship Season

Written by Jason Miller

Directed by Gregory Mosher

Starring Brian Cox, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Noth, Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland

Performances through May 29, 2011

Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play in 1973, That Championship Season returns nearly 40 years later to a nation in a similar downward spiral. Although Jason Miller’s classic about a small-town Pennsylvania high-school basketball players’ reunion with their coach references Vietnam, Communism, racism and high unemployment, nothing much has changed in the meantime, and the conflicts Miller dramatizes remain an illuminating study of how Americans see themselves.

The men of That Championship Season are surely archetypes, but Miller breathes fiery life into all of them. George Sikowski (Jim Gaffigan), the town’s barely competent mayor, is having a tough re-election campaign. James Daley (Kiefer Sutherland), the middle school principal acting as George’s de facto campaign manager, is too comfortably reticent to make his own mark; James’ brother Tom (Jason Patric, Miller’s son), alternates making snide remarks with being a falling-down drunk. Phil Romano (Chris Noth), a successful local entrepreneur whose business has environmentalists up in arms, thinks about supporting George’s opponent to help his bottom line. (The fifth player, Martin, doesn’t return for the annual get-togethers.)

Hovering over them is the unnamed Coach (Brian Cox), who browbeats and pulverizes the men as if they’re still his pimply-faced charges from over 20 years ago. As more booze disappears and the conversations turn ugly—with recriminations of adultery and bigotry raising their heads—Miller’s play turns into a shockingly blunt dissection of society through the prism of men whose high school accomplishments still color how they see themselves as adults, even as each has become a failure of some sort.

That Championship Season, with its scathing dialogue and full-bore characterizations, addresses meaningful questions about the violence in American life, and Gregory Mosher’s smart, straightforward staging keeps that subtext of Miller’s rage on the surface. Is it dated? Not at all: Mosher and his exemplary cast keep the play relevant to our time without changing one word of the script.

Miller’s adroitly written play lends itself to unfounded criticism, since the (never seen) women in these men’s lives are brutally dissected and labeled as whores—or worse—and there’s a gleeful, politically incorrect plethora of ‘n’ words. In fact, the Coach’s litany of racist invective brands him as a reactionary who, despite his admiration for Theodore Roosevelt (there’s a framed portrait over the fireplace) and John F. Kennedy, also has good words for witch hunter Joe McCarthy. The boys, as he calls the men, barely react to his offensive words, except Tom, of course, who takes the opportunity to address the championship game incident with an opposing black player that made Martin disown the Coach’s reunion. Later, the Coach was forced to retire after breaking a student’s jaw.

The crackerjack cast Mosher has assembled is extremely good both separately and together, with Noth’s randy Phil, Cox’s blustery Coach and Gaffigan’s affably doltish George scoring highest. Patric and Sutherland, though the others’ equals in many ways, have their faults: Patric’s affected line readings are a shade too dandyish, while Sutherland’s lack of vocal projection might explain James’ quiet mediocrity but plays havoc with some of his lines.

But no matter: superbly designed by Michael Yeargan (sets), Jane Greenwood (costumes), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) and Scott Lehrer (sound), this coruscating revival speaks as brashly and loudly as its author surely wanted.

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