There’s been a lot of insistence in the critical press that Jason Miller’s 1972, multi-award-winning play That Championship Season is too hopelessly rooted to the sensibility of its era to be relevant anymore; and alas watching the all-star Broadway revival directed by Gregory Mosher, you can see where such a wrongheaded view might come from.
True, this muscular American play broke little structural ground in its time, but it was (and remains) nonetheless the quintessence of its type, which I call “the gathering play”: characters assemble to celebrate an event, alcohol flows, darker truths emerge. Here the event is the 20th anniversary of a championship high school basketball game and the gatherers are four of the team players and the coach who spurred them onto glory.
The Gathering Play can be an especially vulnerable genre in revival, because its agenda can be so transparent, i.e.: why bring characters together to have a good time unless they’ll wind up having a bad time?…and that being the case, the thematic horse being ridden by the playwright—the ill in society he wishes to expose—is rendered immediately unsubtle.
The subtlety has to come in the casting, playing and nurturing of an ensemble whose delivery is so naturalistically interconnected that the viewer has the feeling of peeking in on a room like a hidden camera. This style was brought to a revelatory pinnacle by director A.J. Antoon’s original production, which virtually redefined ensemble playing in contemporary American theatre. It sustained through cast changes and offshoot companies, while putting its entire original company, particularly Richard A. Dysart, Paul Sorvino and Charles Durning, on the map. (Similarly, no revival has come close to Robert Moore’s original direction of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band; Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf founders as often as it succeeds; and no less than Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh [the granddaddy of gathering plays] can collapse absent “a delicate balance,” if you’ll pardon the titular pun.)
Mosher falls into the common trap of delivering perfectly competent foursquare direction but missing the naturalistic groove. He has enabled his cast to trade off individual virtuoso moments, rather than to hand off emphasis as a group that has become a single, collective virtuoso—and if the shortfall doesn’t kill the play (which still sturdily barrels along, its drama and even its laughs preserved), it fails to sufficiently validate it. Brian Cox’s coach, rather than grand and gradually more frightening, thus becomes impotently blustery. Chris Noth as corrupt, thrill-starved businessman Phil Romano, turns dialog that requires a light, confident touch (behind which the character’s sadness hides), into drawn out set-pieces of illustrative soliloquy. Jason Patric (the playwright’s son) as Tom, the alcoholic whose sense of irony compels him to dispense wiseass truth, doesn’t trust his lines enough, and throws “arm acting” around as if to make sure he’ll get his share of focus. Jim Gaffigan’s befuddled Mayor George is under-energized; and Kiefer Sutherland as Tom’s brother James, the mediocre high school principal with secret ambitions…well, he’s largely on the money. He’s worthy of a better blended ensemble.
As is Mr. Miller and his under-realized gem of a play…