Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 6, 2011
That Championship Season by Jason Miller. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Scenic design by Michael Yeargan. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Cast: Brian Cox, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Noth, Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland.
Those would be Jason Patric (Miller’s son, for the record), Jim Gaffigan, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth, and Brian Cox, a collection of performers that, like the characters they portray here, are blessed with strong personalities. The glowering and imposing Noth, as mining magnate Phil, provides a startling contrast to the affable Gaffigan, playing the floundering mayor, George, who’s dependent on Phil’s financial and psychological support. Patric and Sutherland are cut from the same reformed-milquetoast cloth, sharing a reluctant virility that’s harshly at odds with their testosterone-packed popular film and TV roles — but is appropriate here for their roles as brothers Tom and James, respectively. As the Coach, and the others’ mentor, Brian Cox looks and sounds ideal as the one-time perfectionist who’s unintentionally let himself go, but can’t let go of his boys.
In practice, however, the casting fumes more than it sparks. Noth is so much the unrelieved heavy that Gaffigan, best known as a stand-up and film comedian, cannot put up sufficient resistance to propel his portion of the story forward. The question isn’t so much whether his George will crack, but when — Gaffigan’s manner onstage, while wonderfully bright, lacks the faux-authoritative sense George needs to convince as a man who’s on the verge of imploding both publicly and privately.
Working against type themselves, Patric and Sutherland struggle to find real depth in their needly characters. Tom is defined by little other than his alcoholism, which Patric drastically (and almost distractingly) underplays; and James by his ineffectuality, as both a school principal and George’s campaign manager, which Sutherland grandly overplays. They do read well as brothers, sharing a warm but uneasy rapport, but they’re less dynamic as individual entities adrift in their angst.
Cox, on the other hand, has no trouble essaying the full range of emotions required as the Coach. A pliable stage actor, who last appeared on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll in 2007, he brings tremendous energy to a man who’s trying to maintain his grip on both the past that was and the past he always wanted to be. If he doesn’t possess quite the sandpapery grittiness that’s ascribed to the Coach, that helped him lead his basketball team to its sole substantive (if controversial) victory two decades earlier, or that he completely owns the anti-Semitic and pro–Joseph McCarthy passion he frequently expresses, there’s sufficient coloring around the edges to compensate.
But by contemporary standards, the Coach is not the one thing he must be for That Championship Season to work: terrifying. The symbol of all that a late-Vietnam America saw wrong with its earlier devotions to success at any expense, the Coach is a man who must drive these men off the cliff as they believe they’re gathering at the Coach’s house (the middle-class-elegant, quasi–lodge hall set is by Michael Yeargan) celebrating the 20th anniversary of that Last Big Game. Without that crucial quality, the necessary structure of how the four youngsters won that game, and how it’s reorganized their lives since, prevents the play from achieving its fullest potential.
To be clear, this is not Cox’s fault — time has presented us with far scarier and subtler evils, as well as more vivid pictures of the impediments to America’s lasting inner greatness. For the early 1970s, the Coach might have been a fiery invention reminding audiences of what society was slowly but steadily fighting against. Now, he reads as too manufactured a villain, someone too transparently evil to be a real threat — let alone wield control over a generation of men who courted peril by molding themselves so closely in his image.
Much of the rest of the writing is, unfortunately, just as sketchy. Tom’s alcoholism, for example, is written more for laughs than tragedy, and therefore is not successful as the societal detriment other characters describe. George’s reelection campaign is a flat MacGuffin that twists and contorts itself to get the right guys mad at the right other guys for the right reasons at the right times, but never really informs their behavior or our perception of it in any lasting way. Even the men’s latent racist tendencies, most forcefully delineated in the coach, are inciting pock-marking rather than deep-wounding commentary on the culture that raised and encouraged such behavior.
Such glancing writing mixed with Mosher’s direction, which as with his A View From the Bridge last year is missing a connection to a grander scheme at work (in this case, the vital sense that these men all were part of the same world is utterly absent), makes this production difficult to penetrate, especially early on. Once the men discover how unsustainable their points of view about their lives and themselves have become, things do pick up steam, and Cox’s final monologue about the inadvertently destructive gifts he bestowed his players is a forceful reminder of how decades and preconceptions have a habit of clouding such notions as “right” and “wrong.”
Those two concepts are no less important to us today than they were in 1972, but our medium for understanding them — and our language for discussing them — has changed more than That Championship Season can bear. Its messages about how we’ve become who we are, and the inherent dangers therein, will never go out of date entirely. But the original flood of contempt for the unforgivable actions of the previous generation, which it rode to great success when it was the country needed to hear, has slowed to but a faintly burbling dribble.