To christen its new 299-seat Times Square theater designed with millennial flair by the innovative Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, Second Stage has chosen to present Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season,” the 1972 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama about a high school basketball team’s increasingly lacerating 20th annual reunion. Whether artistic director Carol Rothman has grown nostalgic for the ’70s (Albert Innaurato’s 1977 comedy “Gemini” is the next offering) or simply wants to commemorate her theater’s 20th anniversary season with pungent contemporary American work, the inaugural production, magisterially directed by Scott Ellis, marks an impressive debut for Off Broadway’s swankiest new address.
Set in a small Pennsylvania town, the story concerns four men in their late 30s who gather for an annual booze-filled get-together at the house of their beloved old coach (James Gammon). At the center of their festivity is a silver basketball trophy for a game won at the buzzer with an astonishing display of coordinated teamwork. That nothing in their current lives can compare to that indelible moment of glory explains only part of the rising bitterness and despair engulfing them.
George Sikowski (Ray Baker), who’s up for re-election as mayor, keeps trying to convince everyone that his Jewish opponent doesn’t have a chance. While his aging Catholic buddies revel in the anti-Semitism, his victory is far from assured. Phil Romano (Dennis Boutsikaris), a philandering Italian-American businessman who likes to rub his friends’ noses in his success, has his share of doubts about George’s political future and he’s considering making a contribution to the other side out of pure economic self-interest.
James Daley (Dylan Baker), George’s downtrodden campaign manager, slams Phil for his betrayal and goes on to accuse him of having an affair with George’s wife. As the battle intensifies, James’ brother Tom (Michael O’Keefe), a part-time speech writer and full-time alcoholic, fires off cynical comments, revealing that not even the team’s championship game was won fairly. Leave it to Coach, however, with his gruff philosophy and macho pep talks, to lull his demoralized players back into the mythology of their former greatness.
A precursor to David Mamet’s more stylistically accomplished forays into the dog-eat-dog world of masculine survival, Miller’s drama has a savage edge. Though fairly conventional in its construction, the work is unsparing in its exposure of the corruption, ruthlessness and denial permeating these disappointed men. That it’s also fiercely entertaining suggests how well the playwright’s cunning observations are comically deployed.
While alert to the play’s lasting resonance, Ellis’ production cannily re-creates a distinctly 1970s world. Allen Moyer’s sprawling set, lit in sepia tones by Kenneth Posner, captures in all its dated details the bachelor sensibility of Coach’s home. Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes brings the decade’s fashions excruciatingly back to life — and whoever’s responsible for the Sonny Bono hairstyles deserves an extended bow.
As for the cast — well, it’s simply one the strongest examples of ensemble acting this season. While there are no star turns, a few performances stand out. First and foremost is Boutsikaris, who’s so utterly convincing as the cheating husband in search of his next ego fix that a few women in the audience couldn’t stifle their audible disgust.
Ray Baker perfectly embodies the washed-up politician who’s prepared to descend to the dirtiest level to hold on to his shabby office. As James, Dylan Baker projects the kind of mute self-loathing that comes with the recognition that one has squandered an admittedly meager talent.
What’s most remarkable about these actors, particularly Gammon as Coach, is the way they’re able to portray their flawed characters without either diminishing their moral responsibility or shortchanging their humanity.
“That Championship Season” may seem like a tame choice to launch New York’s first truly postmodern (or is it post-postmodern?) theater building. Certainly the play’s themes have been circulating for quite some time and its form is by no means groundbreaking, but the raw theatrical power generated by Ellis’ production makes it all seem almost new.