Glory days relived in 'That Championship Season'

that-championship-season.jpgWhat's odd about "That Championship Season" is that it has an extremely solid cast, and is a revival of a Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, yet it's leaden and dated.

The play by Jason Miller unfolds in 1972, where four manly men drink shots of whiskey and Schlitz and relive their glory moment of winning the state basketball championship 20 years earlier.

The action all takes place in the 1950s-era living room of Coach, where a portrait of his hero, President Teddy Roosevelt, hangs above the mantel that holds the shiny trophy.

Brian Cox is Coach, a man who sees life only in black and white, with winning and with skin color. He's a formidable figure who influenced his players, and continues to play an avuncular role even when not needed. That's his burden: he is not needed.

Jim Gaffigan is George Sikowski, the small-minded mayor of this small city in Pennsylvania.

"I am sincerely more proud of winning that championship than I am of being mayor of this town," George says early on.

Chris Noth is Phil Romano, a smarmy coal mine owner, who shrugs off this ecology nonsense.

"You know you can't kill a mountain," Phil says. "Mountains grow back."

"The Lost Boys" alumni Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric play the Daley brothers, James and Tom. James is a school principal and father of five. He's embittered, a bit of a martyr, and weary of always doing the right thing.

Tom is a drunk, a falling-down sot, and even takes an impressive header down the stairs.
Incidentally, Patric, playing Tom, is the son of the late playwright Jason Miller, whose ashes are in an urn are on the set.

Tom has many of the best zingers and delivers lines so well. Everyone is perfectly cast, if not always perfect in the parts.

Gaffigan is spot-on spouting platitudes as an unwitting buffoon, but when he has to be dangerously angry, it's just not enough.

The mayor is terminally clueless and considers himself a hero because he manages to censor the high school paper. His wife (who is never seen; no women are) is having an affair with Phil. When James Daley intentionally blurts this out, in his feeble attempt to manipulate the men, the mayor loses it, picks up a loaded shotgun, and aims it at Phil.

It should be a moment of great theater.

With an excellent set and a smart play, we just expect more. It's difficult, particularly in the second act, to not check your watch.

Some of that is because of the racial slurs. The mayor's opponent is Jewish, and there's much discussion about how awful the Jews are. What was shocking then now just makes the audience uncomfortable.

Over the course of the night, as they get drunker and their inhibitions melt away, the men's souls are stripped bare. It's not a pretty sight, with these onetime heroes on the basketball court, now unhappy men, struggling in middle age.

Given the actors involved and this play's pedigree, there should be more passion. It should be the sort of play people give ovations to, and feel drained after seeing.

Originally staged in 1972, this ran for 700 performances and was a huge hit. If anyone's associated with this work, it's Paul Sorvino, who played Phil on Broadway, then in the 1982 feature film, and directed the 1999 TV film.

This revival, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, may just have past its date.

Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus