The five-man squad onstage in That Championship Season is a not unimpressive bunch, a Hollywood casting director’s “dream team” of sorts: If not quite the Jordan-Magic-Bird miracle of the ’92 Olympics, they’re certainly within a halfcourt shot of the 2000 Carter-Hardaway-Garnett incarnation. Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth, Jason Patric, the comedian Jim Gaffigan, and the great Brian Cox have united to resuscitate Jason Miller’s brined-in-testosterone 1972 Pulitzer-winner, a vicious little Watergate-era object lesson in bonding and betrayal, bad leaders and blind followers, feet of clay and hearts of stone. It’s the anti-Lombardi. N.B.: That doesn’t make it good.
These famous (and semi-famous) names are all playing the game they were recruited to play: Unlike a lot of boldface screen personalities slumming on Broadway, these guys actually listen to each other and, for the most part, throw their signals well. More than once, they manage to produce the illusion that there’s a real barnburner going on. But their playbook, I’m afraid, is hopelessly dog-eared. Miller (who was Patric’s father, and died in 2001) certainly knew a thing or two about the infernal side of the American drive to Win It All. (He channeled some of that demonic intuition into his best known role as an actor: Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist.) But today, we’re all thoroughly drilled in the hazards of team spirit, and in its ugly undercurrent, the oh-so-useful hatred of The Other Side. That Championship Season, a shocker in 1972, is a season or 40 out of date, its fire-bell-in-the-night philippics now playing as crude Tourettic barks.
Cox, unluckily, is charged with most of the barking. He plays Coach, a bulldog in a Gordon Liddy mustache. He’s an old-school Pennsylvania Catholic Democrat, or what we’d today call “a Republican.” Still the guiding cynosure in the lives of his now-grown championship basketball team—none of whom ever recovered from the dubious glories of their win at State—Coach exerts all the power of a childhood seducer. (The Catholic sex-abuse scandal can’t help having a distorting effect in how we view Coach’s hold on these boys; director and Mamet vet Gregory Mosher deals with it only fitfully, and ultimately, there’s not much he can do.) The coach is now running the mayoral reelection campaign of George (Gaffigan), a doughy point guard turned malleable politician. He’s also running the school board via James (Sutherland), a priggish little monster visibly vibrating with neutered apoplexy. (Sutherland generates the most interesting frisson here, working against his typical screen persona: I want to see him play more angry little men.) Coach even holds sway in the business community, via the coal magnate Phil (Noth, a stage natural who knows how to anchor a scene). Phil’s a strip miner with a taste for stag films and other people’s wives. “Number one threat to the environment, they called me that,” he fumes. “The stupid bastards don’t realize, you can’t kill a mountain. Mountains grow back.” They don’t, of course, and neither do reality-pruned male egos. Living proof of this is presented in the wobbly form of sad, sodden Tom (a becomingly rubber-limbed Patric, playing his one note well), the play’s appointed drunk/prophet.
For a while, the play sways along with Tom’s jolly oblivion, all-too-systematically exposing the Coach’s teachings as the reactionary death rattle of a demographic that’s slowly being stripped of its unchallenged supremacy: Jews, blacks, and women bear the brunt of Coach’s wrath. “It’s not a white man’s game anymore,” he finally admits. And his team’s in tatters: Terrible (if hardly surprising) revelations pit the boys against each other, and hate, as a binding force, has a way of backfiring. Our collective pop-consciousness knows this lesson well, and Miller—who certainly wrote some knuckly dialogue back in the day—was one of our original teachers. Still, he didn’t really build this play to last. The act break, capped by a great zinger from Patric, has the feel of a Dukes of Hazzard freeze. Mosher has conjoined the second and third acts, creating a highly nonstandard structure for a Broadway show: a brief, breezy first followed by an interminable second. The show’s prolapsed aft end has no story to drive it, and the characters simply pace their ruts over and over: They can’t change, or grow, or learn, or develop in any way, because Miller won’t let them. They’re all fragile exhibits in his can-you-believe-these-honkeys freakshow, the star of which is Coach, whose roaring Father Coughlin monologues dominate the play’s shapeless, grating final hour. Sadly, we can believe these honkeys, and, with its distinct cologne of embalming fluid, That Championship Season, far from alarming our social immune systems, gives us the opposite impression: that these little monsters are contained behind theatrical Plexiglas, safely encased in the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can see the old four-corners offense coming for a Pennsylvania mile.
At the Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street.