Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Philly Fan at Theatre Exile
Most people who have followed NFL football this season must have thought that loyal Philadelphia Eagles fans were crushed a few weeks ago when the Eagles lost 42-0 to the Seattle Seahawks. Well, they were. But for the true Philadelphia sports fan, losing in a big way is devastating yet hardly surprising. The first time I saw the Eagles at Vet Stadium in 1975 they got clobbered by Cincinnati 31-0. I learned at an early age that to be a sports fan in Philadelphia is to get your heart broken repeatedly.
The Philly Fan is a show that captures the roller coaster of emotions the city's obsessive sports fans go through. In a hilarious and often moving performance, Tom McCarthy (who also conceived the show) perfectly embodies the spirit of every loudmouthed Irishman from Kensington who ever sat on a barstool and gave the world a piece of his mind.
McCarthy plays a working class lug known simply as The Fan. It's February 5, 2005, and The Fan is sitting in his favorite watering hole telling an unseen visitor from Dallas why the Eagles are certain to win the Super Bowl the following night: "McNabb to T.O., baby! ... We got [Terrell Owens] under contract for six, seven more years!" (20-20 hindsight being what it is, that line gets one of the night's biggest laughs.)
In trying to explain his devotion, The Fan says "It's just something you feel ... you gotta be one of us." Well, that's not true. Thanks to McCarthy's performance and a funny, wide-ranging script by Bruce Graham, even someone who knows nothing about sports - well, almost nothing - will come to understand what makes The Fan (and, by extension, all The Fans) tick.
Beginning with the thrill of the Eagles' 1960 NFL championship victory, The Fan takes us through all the ups and downs of the city's major sports teams. He cackles with excitement as the 1964 Phillies make their meteoric rise ("Gene Mauch is the best manager this team ever had!"), then crumbles as the team stumbles through its last twelve games and blows the pennant ("Gene Mauch is the worst goddamned manager this team ever had!"). He also brilliantly evokes all the hysteria that reigned when the Phillies finally won the World Series in 1980 and the Flyers won two NHL championships in the seventies. Yet he notes with bitterness the losing streak since the Sixers' NBA victory in 1983 - "the longest drought of any city with four teams ... there's a whole generation of kids around here that don't know what it's like to have a winner." Prospects for the future don't look good, either: "Even that Smarty Jones laid down on us!"
If it were just 65 minutes of whining about how bad it is to lose, The Philly Fan would be pretty dull. Instead, McCarthy and Graham focus on the relationship between the teams and their outspoken fans, and how the extreme reactions heard in the stadiums reveal so much about both. "You always know where you stand" with Philly's fans, he says, justifying the jeering of the city's famed "Boo Birds." And he has a lot of great one-liners about some of the city's most famous stars, from Donovan McNabb ("Lay off the Chunky Soup and take more throwing practice") to Pete Rose ("Like T.O., you hate him until he's on your team") to Mike Schmidt ("He always looked like he had to take a dump"). The Fan's love/hate relationship with sports teams even extends to the late mayor Frank Rizzo ("A total whack job... oh, don't get me wrong, I voted for him twice").
Along the way, The Fan reveals bits and pieces about his private life until he becomes a fully rounded character. We see how losses in his personal life have bruised him, but it's being a fan that sustains him and makes him feel as if he's part of a family, even when the people closest to him start disappearing. McCarthy - aided by Graham's witty script and flawless direction by Joe Canuso - does a terrific job of making The Fan touching and endearing when he could be crass and annoying.
Is knowledge of the city and its sports history essential to love The Philly Fan? Well, it wouldn't hurt. On the other hand, I knew nothing about 1960s Eagles coach Joe Kuharich, but when I heard The Fan describe him as a guy who made 1990s Eagles coach Rich Kotite "look like Lombardi," I learned all I needed to know about him. And you won't even have to like sports to get laughs from The Fan's story about how he missed the end of one of the greatest Phillies moments ever, Jim Bunning's perfect game.
The Philly Fan ends with the disappointed fan's eternal cry, "Wait 'til next year." but don't wait too long - it's only playing a few more weeks, and you won't want to miss it.
The Philly Fan runs through January 21, 2006 and is presented by Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 and $25 and are available by calling 215-922-4462 or online at www.theatreexile.org.
The Philly Fan