Playing to Win
By Isa Goldberg
The male characters in Jason Miller’s1973 Pulitzer and Tony-winning drama do not evoke a lot of empathy. They score with the audience because they are all too recognizable – like the imperfect men with whom we live every day.
As the play opens, they are meeting in the home of their high school Coach (Brian Cox) for the annual celebration of their stellar high school basketball win now 20 years ago. It was a big victory for a small town team. And for the four players who share the bond of that victory, it is a lesson about winning that has proven all too formative.
Here is the lineup: George Sikowski (Jim Gaffigan) running for his second turn as Mayor, Phil Romano (Chris Noth) the town’s leading businessman, and James Daley (Kiefer Sutherland), a high school principal who plans to run for Superintendent of Schools, once George is reelected. Finally, James’s brother Tom (Jason Patric) is an alcoholic whom James has protected all these years. The codependency between all of the men is as emotional as it is political and financial.
At first, the presence of star players – especially Sutherland and Noth – is difficult to get past. But none of the actors play endearing parts here. “That Championship Season” studies the anatomy of the Achilles Heel – it shows us weak characters preying on the weakness of others. To that end, Sutherland, far from his television role as action hero (“24”), or his media fame as bad boy, portrays a faithful married man and father, but one who is unfulfilled and bitter. When he launches into a tirade about the web of responsibilities that have held him back, he gets a quick retort, “You have eyes like a beggar”. And Sutherland fits the description to a tee, with his beady eyes darting around the room; he is a lifeless shadow of Jack Bauer, his crusader, fighter television persona.
Noth’s Phil is a hero in their eyes. Regardless of philandering with his best friend’s wife then paying off the mayor’s office to hide his illicit business practices, Phil is a hero because he’s rich and successful. As portrayed by Noth, Phil is uncertain of his success, and in a scene with James he owns up to his own dissatisfaction, reflecting on himself with quiet introspection. The actor wins some empathy, while the character jockeys to push James into the background of the mayor’s political campaign.
George Sikowski makes a fine Broadway debut as the insecure, self-serving mayor for whom survival as a political puppet is the be all and end all. In the midst of it, Jason Patric as the alcoholic brother gives us a window into the “breaking bones to win” mentality that still drives this team. To that end, Brian Cox portrays the Machiavellian Coach as a sheer force of nature. A man of energy, stamina and focus, blustering with racial slurs and anti-Communist sentiment, Cox imparts a sense of purpose to his ball players, and to this revival.
Michael Yeargan stages the production in a big old country house with rifles hanging on the wall and pictures of John F. Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt that play into the dialogue about leadership. The ambiance evokes a longing for taxidermy – heads to mount, trophies to win.
As directed by Gregoy Mosher, the acting is more visceral and the action better paced than the movie adaptation of 1982. But, one can’t escape the feeling that there is still something missing here. The name-calling and drunken brawling fail to surprise us, and even the action with the rifles comes off as predictable.
Yet, in the final analysis “That Championship Season” is a buddy tale about success in which the ethos of winning delivers an understated if not unspoken pathos.
“That Championship Season” is a limited engagement through May 29th. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. For tickets call 212-239-6200, visit Telecharge.com or go to the box office.
Bernard Jacobs Theater
242 West 45 Street