That Championship Season Ain't Got Game

A veteran play shows its age in 2011

Please forgive me, sports fans, but even back in 1972, I wasn't a big admirer of Jason Miller's That Championship Season (Jacobs Theatre), which swept that year's prizes—mostly, I suspect, because of A.J. Antoon's sharp, subtly nuanced production, the members of its stellar five-man cast, all experienced theater hands, uniformly outclassing most of their previous work.

Undeniably, Miller's script, about a small city's once-shining group of high-school basketball teammates and their coach falling apart, nastily, at a 20th-year reunion, gave his actors the opportunity to glow. It's written, with all too self-conscious craftiness, to give every role several big display moments, while welding them all, efficiently, into a tidy group portrait of a male power structure at its corrupt, bigoted, hypocritical height. Plenty of it is still true; the trouble lies in how artificial Miller's approach to it now seems. It hasn't simply dated, which would at least make the artifice seem fun; instead, regrettably, its factitiousness shows through.

This happens despite Gregory Mosher's caring and careful new production, in which everything looks and sounds right, including a great deal of solid, skillful acting, but the events that make a jolly old-boy reunion degenerate into a snarling pack of resentful jackals somehow flatly refuse to catch fire. A small part of the problem is Jim Gaffigan's pale performance, competent but resolutely unvibrant, as the gang's chronic loser, now the town's ineffectual mayor. But the larger difficulty is that the broad strokes by which Miller signals his intent have become too easily readable; what bothered me in 1972 now bothers many.

Gaffigan's colleagues do what they can to alleviate the script's tendency to signal its purposes mechanically. Chris Noth, as the blasé but haunted big-money guy, and Kiefer Sutherland, as the ambitious pipsqueak in pursuit of political favors, are better than workable; Brian Cox, sharp-edged and stingingly crass as their ruthless, hypocritical coach, is even better than that. Most effective of all is the snaky-creepy portrait of the pipsqueak's cynical, alcoholic brother supplied by Jason Patric, author Miller's son. Nobody's depiction of a drunken fall down a flight of stairs will ever match the spectacular one that the late Walter McGinn miraculously managed to execute nightly in 1972, but Patric's, though more modestly naturalistic, is every bit as convincing.

 
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michel feingold and others have faulted the play but failed to consider (thought musto rightly does) the role of the director in creating the dynamics of the performance...plopping brian cox centerstage for a series of set-pieces at full volume (when he might have taken a seat to deal with his failing health and played one of 'em through his physical pain, for example) did not so much expose an old fashioned play as encumber its clockwork dramaturgy with undue emphais on its melordramatic (not necessarily a bad thing) aspects...the same thing happens to o'neill (and so, teachout in the wsj dismisses the first hour of "a moon for the misbegotten" as blather when yet another director foists a cartoon irishman on the play's run-up moments)...another miller's oak-timbered "the crucible" often suffers the same fate when the human dynamics are overshadowed by melodramatic red-lining of polemic and/or lunacy.

 
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