That Championship Season
Five blocks from the Broadway production of Lombardi, which celebrates the bromides of a legendary coaching giant, a star-studded revival of the 1972 Tony-winning play That Championship Season tackles the ugly side of America’s obsession with winning. In fact, Brian Cox’s blustery, bullying Coach, who steered a high school basketball team to the 1952 Pennsylvania state title and now hosts four of that team’s heroes for a 20-year reunion, is a Bizarro Vince Lombardi, a Jesuit-trained molder of men who spouts hateful, bigoted screeds against the radical changes he sees in his country and reminds his boys, ”You have to hate to win!”
This isn’t a simple sports story. These are five grown men who are dying spiritually, five men whose post-basketball lives have failed to live up to the promise of their youthful glory days. Their world is changing, and no one’s more aware of that than Coach, who tries to position his former charges on the court of life and dictate the plays that will best preserve his worldview. Dough-faced buffoon George (Jim Gaffigan) is now the town mayor, but his prospects for re-election are slim, as he’s facing a challenge from an idealistic candidate — a Jewish candidate! — who resembles the handsome and charismatic Robert Goulet. James (Kiefer Sutherland) ostensibly runs George’s floundering campaign, but businessman Phil (Chris Noth) is wavering about giving another much-needed five-figure donation. Floating above it all is the boozing prodigal son, James’ brother Tom (Jason Patric), who alone seems to doubt the Coach’s gospel. But he’s too far pickled to offer anything besides sly barbs at everyone’s misfortune, including his own. ”I don’t care about the melodrama of your life,” he sneers. As the saying goes, with friends like these…
Cox is pitch-perfect as the revered Coach who used to be able to wipe that wiseass smirk off your face with a simple glare, but now is reduced to arm-twisting. He’s a simple bully who lives and looks like a German burgher: His Victorian home is stocked with loaded rifles, and portraits of JFK, Teddy Roosevelt, and Joe McCarthy hang over the mantle. He’s an angry, misogynistic man, and Cox plays him big but never broad.
Sutherland masterfully submits to the role of the perfect, obedient team player who’s been setting picks and taking charges on and off the basketball court his whole life but now decides, unrealistically, that he wants his share of the glory. Even when he just sits in one of Coach’s red velvet chairs, he seems at risk of being swallowed into oblivion by its cushions. This seemingly passive role is a total departure for Sutherland, who’s most famous for playing clear-eyed heroes and hot-blooded derelicts.
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.
Only Patric’s performance rings slightly hollow. The actor — whose late father, Jason Miller, wrote the original play — saunters across the stage in a pair of oversize pants that are meant to overcompensate for the fact that Jason Patric doesn’t look like a sickly alkie. With all Patric’s poking about the periphery with bemused contempt, his performance seems to be ripped from a different play. (Think of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, minus the tuberculosis.) His character’s bitter defiance is then undermined by the play’s ultimate but underwhelming revelation, the secret about the missing fifth teammate. Are we really to believe Tom’s long descent into mediocrity began with Coach’s misdirected will to win?
When That Championship Season debuted in 1972, in the midst of campus protests and racial strife and a month before the Watergate break-in, Coach’s brand of blue-collar belligerence reflected (or lampooned) the Silent Majority that Richard Nixon courted during his re-election. ”We are the country, never forget that boys,” Coach intones. Miller’s play captured an era, and it still is most at home in that bygone time. That Championship Season is an enjoyable, though somewhat outdated look at a time when leaders, like Nixon and Lombardi, were still blindly obeyed. B