By Ryan Pfeffer
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You´d think the narrow genre of sports-on-stage would include loads of basketball entries, especially since b-ball squads consist of playwright-friendly five-player rosters. It seems, though, that Jason Miller´s creepy 1972 That Championship Season is about all you get.
On the surface, That Championship Season promises the sweet unspooling of youthful sports references that should spark reflection of the archetypal fame trumpeted by A.E. Houseman´s ¨To an Athlete Dying Young¨ that ¨withers quicker than the rose.¨ But what actually happens is much more disturbing. That Championship Season turns out to be a bitter and problematic play about weakness and power that goes way beyond the withering rose. Thankfully, Palm Beach Dramaworks´ energetic production, which opened last week, has also made it spellbinding entertainment.
It´s 1972, and four polyester-clad teammates of Scranton, PA´s 1952 high school state championship basketball team have arrived at the eerie home of their retired coach (played by Peter Haig) for their 20th annual reunion. Teammates gathering here include George (Stephen S. Neal), now Scranton´s buffoonish, mayor who´s up for reelection; Phil (Michael St. Pierre), a lecherous coal baron; James (Gregg Weiner), a submissive, yet politically-ambitious school principal; and Tom (Todd Allen Durkin), James´ alcoholic drifter of a brother.
Yes, only four show up for the party. The fifth team member, Martin, has never attended a single reunion, for reasons you´ll discover near the play´s end that make the defining moment of their lives the triumphant last ten seconds of a game played two decades ago a dubious achievement.
Nothing in 20 years has changed for these guys, and when they reunite, it doesn´t take long for the four to devolve into pathetic lost boys seeking paternal love in Coach´s musty drawing room. The parlor itself has become the eternal locker room where the Gatorade is whiskey in which Coach forever spits his Machiavellian pep talks.
But, hey, what a locker room. Palm Beach Dramaworks, it seems, just loves set building. Whether it´s the back porch of a Fire Island beach house in last season´s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, or Coach´s Victorian parlor, Dramaworks revels in the contrast between its cheap stackable audience chairs and its extravagantly real stage assemblages. You can almost smell the mildew from the antique furniture and oriental rugs of Coach´s parlor, and the set is well-designed to draw your eyes from the silver championship cup sitting prominently on a foreground table to the background wood-paneled wall of fame where Coach keeps his photo shrine to his boys, as well as to his other heroes Teddy Roosevelt, J.F.K., and (yikes) Commie-bashing Senator Joe McCarthy.
This specific choice of heroes signals that, with That Championship Season, you´re entering the amber-encased generation of basketball before the game became synonymous with Nike endorsements, hip hop, and NBA dress codes that hopelessly seek to enforce no-bling couture. This is the world of 1950s-era hoop dreams in small town crucibles, where ruddy white boys (not boyz) were transformed into men.
It´s the world of Hoosiers (not Above the Rim) and John Updike´s Rabbit, Run. It´s also the world of former Senator/Knick Bill Bradley, famously lifted up through writer John McPhee´s 1965 A Sense of Where You Are. However, while post-basketball Bradley went on to a rich career, these guys all turn out to be faltering Updike-molded Rabbit Angstroms.
None of them are sympathetic, and the absence of ostensibly free-thinking Martin, the absent fifth teammate, magnifies their entrapment in Coach´s world. ¨I owe my whole life, success to that man,¨ George says of Coach. ¨He convinced me that I could be mayor of this town. He ran me.¨ And Coach is still running them.
Director J. Barry Lewis himself skillfully runs his five actors, with two high (but opposite on the spectrum) notes. Todd Allen Durkin, brilliant last spring as a sputtering paraplegic war vet in Mosaic Theatre´s The Pull of Negative Gravity, is also brilliant here as a sputtering, cynical boozer. Durkin´s a crowd pleaser, especially with the audience´s older ladies, who slap their knees and titter away at his revelatory drunken asides. At the other extreme, Peter Haig, as Coach, barrels along as a crypt-keeper Karl Rove stuffed in a letterman´s sweater. You helplessly cringe whenever this racist Nietzschian power broker appears.
That Championship Season is a well-drawn, complete play, but it´s not clear what kind of complete play it is. Playwright/actor Jason Miller, who died in 2001, will be remembered not for winning a Pulitzer Prize for Season but for his later 70s acting role as puke-receptacle Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist. But what exactly was Jason Miller exorcising with this drama?
Director Lewis attempts insight in his playbill note, writing, ¨These men, and this play, are worthy of our concern because we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that under the surface we may still be brothers.¨ Lewis´s rhetoric soft-pedals, at best, because any positive message of brotherhood fully loses out to a much more desperate theme.
Near the play´s end, when Coach tongue-whips his players, he shouts, ¨You won´t lose, boys, because I won´t let you lose. I´ll whip your ass to the bone. Drive you into the ground. Your soul belongs to God but your ass belongs to me.¨ Keep in mind, Coach is shouting at a bunch of family men now pushing forty.
And as the ¨boys¨ once again listen to a recording of those last ten seconds of their long-ago championship game, what resonates isn´t the soft glow of brother athletes sticking together, but the caustic lingering of lost souls searching for Daddy in a sad half-court No Exit.