At the curtain call of a recent preview, one of the cast members cracked a joke, and the rest of the actors broke up laughing. They left the stage arm-in-arm, still guffawing. Such easy camaraderie would seem hard to fake, and it serves the cast well. "That Championship Season" has been revived to excellent effect by a talented, committed ensemble of actors.
THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON Broadway Reviews
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Noth and Gaffigan are superb, though on familiar character ground. Noth especially turns what could be a one-note caricature into something more substantial. Phil is the one man who's trying to move on or just keep up — even if he's clueless how to do so — and Noth successfully evokes the emotional whiplash of his frustrated character.
Despite its creation in a tumultuous era, this never was a more than a solid piece of middlebrow message-naturalism. And despite the care and affection lavished on the handsome production, it remains a male-bonding parlor drama that signals its big secrets more clearly than it justifies a high-profile revival. Granted, the bar was set high on this one. Last season, Mosher directed a staggering production of "A View From the Bridge," starring Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson, revealing unimagined depths in Arthur Miller's melodrama. When Mosher chose Kiefer Sutherland, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Noth, Jason Patric and Brian Cox for this conventional piece of curdled mid-America, one could be forgiven for thinking the director had something special in mind for it.
In the new Broadway revival of Season (* * ½ out of four), which opened Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, a starry cast that includes Miller's son Jason Patric reintroduces these no-longer-young men. Over two boozy hours (in the short first act, virtually every other line seems to be an invitation to imbibe), they revisit old grievances and form new ones, gradually tearing to shreds both past glories and present accomplishments.
Director Gregory Mosher, masterful with last year’s A View from the Bridge, does what he can with lesser material, but he can’t get all his guys into the same game. Yet there’s no single element to blame. Times change. Thirty-eight years ago, ex-jocks wallowing in gallons of booze, casual racism, clammy misogyny and obsessive anti-Semitism might have given New York audiences a frisson, but today, we just call that a sports blog.
It seems unfair to judge any play written 40 years ago by today's standards, especially one that's so tied into the cultural climate of its day. As a museum piece the production succeeds. But if the producers were aiming higher, I'd have to say they dropped the ball.
Michael Yeargan's grand but musty, museumlike living-room set is absolutely right, as are Jane Greenwood's character-defining period costumes and Peter Kaczorowski's appropriately unforgiving lighting. This is a play, after all, that wants to lay its characters' self-deluded myths bare. Unfortunately, when a playwright indulges in such obvious, over-the-top symbolism as having George throw up into the urn of the team's sacred silver trophy, it's a good bet that what he means to lay bare is probably already glaringly apparent.
The five-man squad onstage in That Championship Season is a not unimpressive bunch, a Hollywood casting director’s “dream team” of sorts: If not quite the Jordan-Magic-Bird miracle of the ’92 Olympics, they’re certainly within a halfcourt shot of the 2000 Carter-Hardaway-Garnett incarnation. Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth, Jason Patric, the comedian Jim Gaffigan, and the great Brian Cox have united to resuscitate Jason Miller’s brined-in-testosterone 1972 Pulitzer-winner, a vicious little Watergate-era object lesson in bonding and betrayal, bad leaders and blind followers, feet of clay and hearts of stone. It’s the anti-Lombardi. N.B.: That doesn’t make it good.
Playing against type in his Broadway debut, Kiefer Sutherland brings nervous, wiry intensity to James Daley, Tom's resentful, underachieving brother, whose ambitions were impeded by family responsibility. Cox strikes the right notes of forced bluster and creeping desperation, and Patric sneers from the sidelines as the sloppy drunk who doesn't care enough to keep up the pretense.
For all of their at times strenuous emoting, the actors cannot shout down the drama’s heavy creaking. Give “That Championship Season” another few decades to, well, season, and perhaps it will improve with further age. Unfortunately for now, it’s a former winner that should have stayed in retirement.
Jason Patric (the late author's son), who got soused on Broadway when he played Brick in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," hits the bottle again as Sutherland's alcoholic brother. With his eyes permanently squinty and voice filled with silky cynicism, he throws himself into the role — and down the stairs at one point. Patric is well-cast as a former teenage god who's gone to seed, and is the MVP when it comes to giving an interesting performance.
While many expert eyes and hands also lavish attention on the new revival of "That Championship Season," the results are not nearly as satisfying. The smart and incisive Gregory Mosher (Broadway's "A View From the Bridge"; the Kennedy Center's "The Glass Menagerie") has the directorial reins on this occasion, but he's unable to elevate the dramatic stakes of Jason Miller's dated, Pulitzer-winning play above the predictable terrain of a liquor-fueled confessional.
Given the participation of this director and this all-male cast, I was looking forward to “Season” as a sort of Mametian testosterone bath. At some point, though, I realized that it wasn’t a play by Mamet that “Season” recalled, but “The Boys in the Band,” Mart Crowley’s 1968 drama of unhappy homosexuals. I mean, think about it. Both plays present an ostensibly supportive group of friends who, over the course of many drinks, turn on one another and segue into anguished confessions. Heck, there’s even an “I dare you to make that call” telephone scene in both plays. And each ends with characters revealing their profound discontent with their existential conditions. In “Boys,” of course, that’s being gay. The boys of “Season” are afflicted by the disease of being American, and as this play ponderously presents it, there’s no cure in sight.
Unfortunately, there are no nuances to the character revelations that Miller makes to illustrate the shabby nature of Coach's civics lessons. The more they drink (and these grown men knock back their drinks with the reckless abandon of teenagers), the uglier their confessions of cruel deeds, immoral behavior, and acts of outright criminal dishonesty.
The most exciting moment in "That Championship Season" comes when Jason Patric's character, Tom, falls down a flight of stairs. For a couple of seconds, you're involved in what's happening: Wow, that was something! Is he OK? How long did he have to rehearse that stunt? And then it's right back to sleep.
On Michael Yeargan’s too-gorgeous set -- a high-ceilinged parlor room whose mahogany solidity is made light by stained- glass windows and Peter Kaczorowski’s golden lighting -- director Gregory Mosher’s irony-free revival brings together an all-star cast for the boys’ reunion two decades after the Big Win.
Sutherland is wasted as a subservient lackey with false teeth. Noth is typecast as a pompous philanderer and sleepwalks through his role. Patric overplays his character’s drunken binge to the point of being ridiculous. On the other hand, Gaffigan is credibly insecure, and Cox makes the biggest impression as a coach past his prime who is unable to adapt to a politically correct environment.
I won't say that a better playwright might not have been able to make something watchable out of this clichéd scenario, but what Miller made out of it in 1972 was pretty much what you'd have expected from a second-rate writer born in 1939 who had drunk deep from the well of the '60s and now proposed to inform his audiences that their parents' values were comprehensively corrupt. Hence the coach, a boorish, ill-educated stage-Irish blowhard who proudly displays pictures of Teddy Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Fightin' Joe McCarthy on his mantelpiece and salts his small talk with good old-fashioned ethnic slurs of the highest possible voltage, thereby alerting the audience to his lack of enlightenment. Hence, too, his "boys," all of whom are louts save for Tom, who clearly speaks for the author (and who is played in this revival by the author's son).