Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 11, 2012
Magic/Bird by Eric Simonson. Directed by Thomas Kail. Set design by David Korins. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Media design by Jeff Sugg. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Hair/wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis. Technical Superivsor David Benken. Cast: Kevin Daniels, Tug Coker, Deirdre O'Connell, Peter Scolari, Francois Battiste, Robert Manning Jr., Annie-Marie Cusson, Gregory Jones, Anthony Holiday.
Alas, this illusion doesn't last long. Despite focusing on that most immediate and energetic of American sports, basketball, and chronicling one of the most famous rivalries of recent decades, between Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird and L.A. Lakers point guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson, it convinces you of neither the necessity of its story nor the personalities of its subjects. And despite the best efforts of leads Tug Coker (as Bird) and Kevin Daniels (as Johnson), and director Thomas Kail, nothing can make this too-loose dual-bioplay stop dribbling for long.
This is somewhat surprising given the success Simonson and Kail enjoyed with a similar venture a year and a half ago. Lombardi concerned its own larger-than-life figure, but rendered him and the world he inhabited (and in many respects created) in vivid, entertaining colors. Simonson's writing and Kail's staging united the story of Vince Lombardi's love affair with his wife with that of his torrid romance with football, along the way finding something larger and more theatrical than ever necessarily existed in real life. It seemed reasonable to expect they would kindle similar lightning here, especially as Bird's and Johnson's relationship formed not only the basis for a good-natured power struggle in TV commercials as well as on the court, but revitalized long-lagging public interest in basketball itself.
Simonson, however, employs a technique diametrically opposed to the one that made Lombardi work: He dwells more on the sport than he does the people behind it. He gets off to a rocky start, beginning his story at the end, when Johnson calls Bird to tell him that he's contracted HIV and will be leaving the NBA, then leaping back 13 years to when both men joined the league just after leaving college. Yet in the process of returning to his initial position over the next 85 uninterrupted minutes, he unearths neither a deep-running conflict or a percolating friendship between the men that might ignite dramatic sparks. Most of what we see is each admiring (and despairing of) the other from afar, playing politics over their joint TV spot for Converse shoes, and eventually bonding over lunch at Bird's home in French Lick, Indiana.
But even as the Celtics and the Lakers trade championship victories and headlines, and Bird and Johnson jostle for Rookie of the Year honors and the general spotlight, through the late 1980s, the two men remain remote and uninvolving, the vitality of their accomplishments never seeping into our blood. Much of the reason for this is, admittedly, due to the visceral joys of basketball being difficult to effectively capture onstage: You need the dozen colliding atoms of the two teams jockeying for the ball to achieve the proper fusion; Bird's sinking multiple baskets in a low-key solo practice session just isn't the same. Kail has placed the action on an open and free-form, but largely black, set (by David Korins) that allows plenty of room for movement (and flying backboards) but displays real color only when the upstage iris opening peels away to reveal Jeff Sugg's video footage of real games. (The stadium-appropriate lighting is by Howell Binkley, and Paul Tazewell design the spot-on costumes.)
Except for those video segments, Magic/Bird displays hardly any sense of motion. Simonson's writing skews heavily toward the history (which is, according to the hardcore basketball enthusiast who accompanied me, impressively accurate), sometimes macro and sometimes micro but invariably staid. A few key "flavor" scenes occur in a Boston pub, when a Celtics fan and a Massachusetts-born Lakers lover face off with overreaching drunken verve, but we learn next to nothing about the central men that would endear them to us. There are snippets suggesting Johnson's love of life (and, by extension, women), and Bird is presented a kind-hearted hick who values life's simple pleasures and a hard day's work (even if it promotes the back problems that would eventually force him out of basketball). But that's it, and it's not enough to make you care about whether they succeed or fail if you don't when you walk in.
It doesn't give the actors much to play, either. Coker's portrayal lives in his teeming drawl, and the dopey stare that projects Unvarnished Innocence to the back of the mezzanine. At his best, Daniels almost approximates Johnson's gregarious nature, but he always undercuts it with a darkness that makes you feel he's hiding something (a possibly the script does not entertain) and keeps you at arm's length. Both men are routinely outshone by Deirdre O'Connell, who plays Bird's wife and mother (and is particularly funny when the latter practically swoons over Johnson's accomplishments) and the reporter whose early coverage makes Johnson, and Peter Scolari at his brusque best as tongue-chewing coaches Pat Riley and Red Auerbach, truly seasoned stage veterans who intimately understand how small tweaks and pointed line deliveries can make big impacts in even tiny roles. (Francois Battiste has an amusingly caffeinated take on an early-career Bryant Gumbel, and Robert Manning, Jr., is fine as a collection of still smaller characters.)
Magic/Bird hints at the allure of its sport and its stars, paying reverent tribute to them in even cameo-like ways ranging from a pre-show display of famous jerseys to "did you catch that?" name-checks in the final scene. The performance I attended was undoubtedly full of basketball lovers who caught every reference and sat at surprisingly rapt attention (the gentlemen next to me asked me utterly without irony as the lights went down whether I rooted for the Celtics or the Lakers), and there's little question they'll love seeing their passion presented onstage. But for everyone else, the show is too dry and static to win the NBA, which is a coproducer, many new converts to its cause.