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Review - Magic/Bird: High Flying, Adored

"Are you the great white hope?" a Boston sports reporter asks the Indiana-grown college star newly acquired by the home team; a player expected to help his suspiciously pale-hued group of teammates win basketball championships.

Larry Bird didn't join the Boston Celtics to prove that white guys can compete with the overwhelmingly black majority of NBA players, but in the racially divisive climate of 1980's Boston, the team's largely white fan base and reputation for preferring to seek out white talent over black definitely stood out.

Likewise, Earvin "Magic" Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers didn't expect to become the straight face of AIDS, but the 1991 discovery of his being HIV positive - a star athlete and family man who claimed no history of homosexual activity - shocked, depressed and, hopefully, educated those who disregarded the epidemic as a "gay disease."

These two issues continually linger in the background of Eric Simonson's solidly meat and potatoes sports drama, Magic/Bird. Teaming up again with director Thomas Kail, who did such an excellent job with Simonson's Lombardi, the playwright effectively contrasts the public, professional and private lives of the two men whose dominating play and heated rivalry fueled a newly passionate interest in the National Basketball Association that has been credited with keeping the league from going bankrupt.

The gregarious, media-friendly Johnson and the introverted, enigmatic Bird only faced each other once in college ball, but media coverage of the two prospects made each fully aware of the other's challenge to his claim of being the best young player in the game. Joining the NBA in the same season, Johnson was named Most Valuable Player of the playoffs while Bird won Rookie of the Year. They spent the next decade competing for honors and championships, until Johnson's career ended with his HIV diagnosis (players were reluctant to play with him for fear of contracting the virus) and Bird's back problems closed out his playing days. They were breifly united as teammates, representing the United States when the Olympic Games opened their basketball competition to professonals.

Simonson's play, which cleverly opens with the six-member ensemble cast introduced individually like players are before a game, is a loosely-structured duo portrait; a collage of scenes chronicling the hesitant friendship between the two that, because of their profession, could only be fully realized once their careers were over. Kevin Daniels may not exude the magnetic charisma of Magic Johnson, but his grounded performance shows us a young man doing his best to adjust to instant celebrity. Tug Coker's quiet, thoughtful Larry Bird is the more interesting presence, as the athlete uses cold indifference to avoid controversy and keep himself focused on the game.

The play's best scene has the two men, at the peak of their rivalry, brought together to film a sneaker commercial near Bird's Indiana home. When the Celtic invites the Laker to spend a lunch break with him and his mom (warm and funny Deirdre O'Connell) the two, left alone, tentatively bond over their common experiences.

Another terrific scene involves the play's four other ensemble members. In this one O'Connell tends bar at a Boston pub where a white Celtics fan (Peter Scolari) loudly praises his team for challenging what he perceives as the NBA's prejudice against white players. His remarks are answered back by a black Lakers fan (Francois Battiste); a resident of Cambridge who won't support the home team because of their reluctance to look past skin color.

Battiste gets a lot of laughs from sports-loving audience members for his high-pitched impersonation of Bryant Gumbel and Scolari scores with his portrayals of crusty Boston coach Red Auerbach and slick L.A. coach Pat Riley.

Kail's fluid production smartly employs game footage to avoid some of the awkwardness that inevitably occurs when theatre and athletics try to mix. At the performance I attended, Coker hit all the easy layups he was required to make, but most depictions of actual game-playing involve Howell Binkley's lighting helping the live action smoothly blend in and out of Jeff Sugg's media design.

Perhaps Magic/Bird would have been a more interesting play if the issues of racism and HIV were pushed more to the forefront, but as it stands, Simonson offers an appealing duo-character portrait and Kail keeps the drama entertaining until the final buzzer.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Tug Coker and Kevin Daniels; Bottom: Peter Scolari.

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