By Joseph Hurley
“That Championship Season” By Jason Miller • Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, NYC • Through May 29, 2011
Time has a way of getting even with plays which, when they were new, traded on both their topicality and life as it was lived beyond the doors of the theaters in which they were produced.
Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season” debuted at the Public Theater in May l972 and then moved to Broadway’s Booth Theatre, where it won the Pulitzer Prize, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play and the Tony Award for Best Play for the l973 season. The play had a long run, chalking up a total of 944 performances, combining the Broadway and Public Theater stands.
Playwright Miller, also an actor, played the leading role of Father Damien Karras in the l973 film, “The Exorcist,” and received a Best Supporting Performance nomination for his work. He died at age 61 in 2001.
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When “That Championship Season ” was new, the end of the Vietnam War, a conflict that cost some fifty-eight thousand American lives, was coming into view, as was the start of the long-running Watergate mess.
America was beginning to rethink its passion for victory, and Miller’s play resounded with doubts about the dubious wisdom of winning at all costs.
“That Championship Season” was filmed in the mid-70s and revived unsuccessfully off-Broadway a few years ago, but hasn’t, until now, been the subject of a major new Broadway staging.
Now, under the direction of Gregory Mosher, it’s back with a name-heavy cast that’s only slightly out of kilter in terms of age and aptitude.
The scene is the careworn Victorian living room of a gloomy house in blue-collar Pennsylvania that the Playbill refers to as “somewhere in the Lackawanna Valley,” a location which in reality is Scranton.
The owner of the house is “Coach,” the only one of the play’s five characters not given a name, and played here well, but just a bit effortfully, by the remarkable and powerful Brian Cox.
Miller’s other four characters were, in 1952, members of a state champion high school basketball team, guided by their beloved coach.
Every year, the surviving four get together at the Coach’s house, impressively and suitably stuffily designed by Michael Yeargan, to celebrate that victory. The year 1972 is different, because the time has come for a lot of previously suppressed truths to work their way to the surface.
In Mosher’s new version, the quartet of former athletic stars is made up first by the alcoholic Tom Daley, well played by Jason Patric, who happens to be the son of the late playwright, and second by Kiefer Sutherland, making a modest but effective Broadway debut as Tom’s brother, James.
The third and fourth members of the aging foursome are comedian Jim Gaffigan, effective as George Sikowski, the town’s mayor, whose wife has been having an affair with his former teammate, the wealthy Phil Romano, played by a 56-year-old Chris Noth, struggling to be convincing as a 38-year-old former athlete.
Subtlety was probably never one of the play’s primary virtues, but a lot of the suggestions of racial and religious prejudice come thudding across the footlights now, nearly 40 years after the original staging, with an obviousness that makes the audience groan audibly.
It’s perhaps a bit difficult to envision these particular four guys as starters on a locally classic basketball team, but a willing suspension of disbelief will do some of the audience’s work and go maybe half the requisite distance for this old-fashioned, well-made drama.
Actor Patric, whose drunken character often stands a bit outside of the play’s main thrust, is, in his way, particularly effective. It’s a decided pity that his playwright father didn’t live long enough to see what his agile, graceful son would do with the part of Tom Daley.