Review: That Championship Season
Small-town discontent is at the heart of That Championship Season, but in this revival, there are no small names to be found in the cast. Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth, Jason Patric, and Jim Gaffigan play unhappy former high school basketball teammates who reunite with their coach (Brian Cox) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their state championship win. Yet instead of cheerful reminiscing, tempers (and lots of booze) spill over.
Normally, this formula makes for guaranteed entertainment, a la August: Osage County or the film The Big Chill. Yet Championship Season feels a little too playwriting-by-numbers. Everyone has their own specific hangup: Sutherland is a school principal who feels that he lacks power; Patric is Sutherland’s alcoholic brother who sneers disapprovingly at everyone; Noth is tired of being valued only for his wealth, and he’s a womanizer; Gaffigan is the mayor who lacks brains, and he knows it. The problem is that with four troubled characters (and a quartet of heavyweight actors playing them), no one gets enough time to fully-develop their issues.
Cox’s Coach is the puppet master who takes credit for shaping the lives of these men (although not so much their flaws, which has his name all over them too). Since the focus is too divided among the four former teammates, Coach’s character is the one in which playwright Jason Miller gets to dig the deepest. With his reverence for Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and his wild racism that bubbles beneath the surface, it is evident that Coach planted many of his personal seeds in his pseudo sons. Perhaps more interesting is Coach’s disapproval for the men’s appalling behavior, and subsequent blindness to his contribution to it.
Cox is a typical scenery chewer as Coach. He’s funny and jolly one minute, dancing around the room with Gaffigan, then fiery and shocking another when he’s blaming America’s problems on Jews. Cox fearlessly takes the sensitive material and disappears into Coach.
Of the four younger men, it is Gaffigan who surprisingly gives the best performance. The veteran comedian making his Broadway debut wears the stoopnagle Mayor George Sikowski with beautiful ease. It might not be the most difficult of roles to play, but his performance is the most convincing. Gaffigan is funny and charming, and later becomes tragic when he learns of the ways some of his friends have betrayed him. It is those moments when Gaffigan truly impresses.
Sutherland, whom most audiences will be paying to see, is unconvincing as the powerless principal. Most of his lines seem just that—lines—and he speaks out of the side of his mouth, which, if it’s an odd characterization choice, I certainly couldn’t tell. Noth, while perhaps rehashing characterizations he’s already nailed in previous roles, is undeniably devilish and sinister as the morally scrupulous Phil. He is dashing and charismatic in the most evil of ways. Patric, who is the playwright’s son, spends most of the play observing (which, even if it sounds funny, he does well). His begins as an admirable, understated performance. Yet in Act II, as his Tom gets more intoxicated, Patric becomes hammy as an ersatz drunk.
Miller’s play, which debuted on Broadway in 1972, feels dated today. Caustic criticism of Jews and blacks awkwardly hit the audience, and I felt it hard as I sat there. Datedness is fine if it teaches something in the present-day climate, but with these prejudicial barbs, I’m not sure what that is in Championship Season. The main theme of these men who seem to have reached their peak in high school and never left their Pennsylvania hometown is relatable and tragic. However, at the play’s conclusion, not enough seems to be learned or changed. Whereas these men graduated high school and didn’t go far, neither does That Championship Season.