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|A CurtainUp Review
That Championship Season
By Brad Bradley
Jason Miller’s That Championship Season first appeared in 1972, and while not the most worthy play ever chosen by artistic director Carole Rothman’s Second Stage Theatre, surely is an apt one for the company’s twentieth anniversary season. At least on the surface, the play is about the twentieth reunion of a fabled small town high school basketball team at the home of their devoted and now aged coach.
But this gritty play is hardly about nostalgia, or even the power of team spirit, such as is the fine 1986 film Hoosiers which also focuses on a high school basketball team in mid-century middle America. Miller’s play, set in the same rural Pennsylvania of an even more celebrated vision of hoop fiction, the novel Rabbit, Run, which established the writing career of John Updike, instead explores the darker sides of the sport and its impact on the players off the court.
Rothman has chosen a first-string director, Scott Ellis, for the inaugural production in a fine new theater and he achieves a solid arc of high energy for the play’s intermissionless hour and three quarters. His cast, while not as galvanizing as A.J. Antoon’s original quintet that was nurtured at the Public Theater and transferred to Broadway, is more than respectable and at times even outstanding. This is especially evident in the rugged performance of worn menace by James Gammon as the bigoted and amorally opportunistic coach. Also impressive is the nuanced performance of Dylan Baker as the most righteous of the coach’s players, a younger brother who has faithfully supported his family and community for so long and feels the time has come to cash in his chips. Ray Baker, Dennis Boutsikaris and Michael O’Keefe also strongly contribute to an effective ensemble performance. The original production won the triple crown of theater awards, the Pulitzer, Tony Award and Drama Critics’ Prize, and at the time that rare achievement seemed totally deserving. Yet in hindsight, the most luminous revivals of the current Broadway season, The Iceman Cometh and Death of a Salesman look unequivocally more resonant and impressive in this usually strong dramatic season of 1998-99. Neither of these classic plays dominated the theater in their original appearances as did That Championship Season in 1972-3.
In some respects Season’s revival now considers nearly the same half-century of American social perspective. Its characters saw glory as mates on an underdog team in 1952 (only three years after Salesman’s premiere). Even for basketball non-fans like myself, noting the personnel differences in that sport over this half-century is not difficult. For decades, basketball, traditionally the sport of smaller communities, resisted integration more fervently than other major sports. On the amateur level, in the years prior to VCRs and cineplexes, the public school gymnasia in suburban high schools were among the most popular winter gathering places in their mostly white communities. To some extent, this insular brand of sportsmanship still exists in areas away from the urban sprawl.
Miller’s colorful and often profane jock language does not restrict its narrow perspective and racial abuse to blacks alone. (Not surprisingly the slur "nigger" is liberally used.) In the vitriol, Jews are slandered equally and resented because they "run the country." (Latinos were hardly thought of in the 1950s.) And, even though the team includes one player of Italian heritage and another of Polish origin, these groups also are portrayed negatively, the only exceptions being those who thoroughly assimilate into the "American" society. One who marginally succeeds, Phil Romano, while a successful businessman, still is called "the dago." He apparently made it in a community that hated him because his father "knew [the right] three words in English: money, work, and business."
The playwright’s disturbing picture implies that the horrible hatreds of would still be troubling for the future; one wonders if the fact that the prejudices still displayed on our land or elsewhere in the late nineties (e.g., Littleton or Kosovo in particular) is a negative sign that the planet has hopelessly distanced itself from seriously addressing the issues of prejudice).
Miller’s drinking revelers show another powerful link to contemporary American worries in their careless use of rifles as threats; the weapons are placed near the entryway, clear symbols of power, fear and isolation in the home. But this isolation is dangerous, a kind that audiences are repelled by, unlike their responses to Willie Loman in Salemanor Hickey in Iceman, both of whom we are drawn to because we feel the respectable pain of their defeated souls.
The coach, never named beyond his job title, clearly suffered from a childhood with a narrow perspective. Coming of age in the Depression, his sense of patriotism is decidedly xenophobic, even to the point of his naming the notorious Communist hunter Senator Joe McCarthy as a model "great American."
The coach may once have been a steady and cautious leader, yet when we view him, he is an impulsive man who can change his mind in an instant. When one of his ex-players is under stress, he quickly says "give him a drink." Only moments later, he tells the man "You’ve had too much to drink." When another, after drinking way too much (like the entire group) has a serious fall on the staircase, the coach says "Don’t move him," soon only to contradict himself with the revised instruction to "Put him on the couch." While the team’s oversized trophy is placed prominently in the vast sitting room of the coach’s home, he meaningfully describes his team as "my real trophies," clearly underscoring his inability to move out of the past.
Allen Moyer’s expansive set design is true to the realistic and domestic requirements of the locale, but reaches a bit too high (literally) in the oversized ceilings and enormous stairway (ample even for Norma Desmond’s needs) he has created. Inasmuch as this is the Second Stage’s first production in a much larger (and quite welcome) new home, a former bank on West 43rd Street (the box office, quaintly, sits in an immense street-level vault), some allowances can be made for excessiveness. The space was not quite ready in all details for the press preview that I attended, but no doubt the needed polishing and painting will be tended to in short order. With all the talk I’ve heard about the venue’s climatic comfort, I was a bit chagrined that I had to wrap myself with outside clothing to avoid a chill while seated. However, such cavils aside, Second Stage’s new home, which has just under 300 seats, is a splendid addition to the theater district, if only because the area has so few mid-size venues, let alone ones with modern and comfortable appointments.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF PLAYS MENTIONED
Death of a Salesman
The Iceman Cometh