When Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season” bowed in 1972, it won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award and a slew of other trophies. But that championship season seems as distant and out-of-touch with the times as the quartet of high school basketball players who reunite 25 years later to reminisce about their winning game. The dated deficits in this macho sudser can be offset by some fancy footwork with a great ensemble cast or even a star turn or two, but neither are in evidence in this Westport production, helmed by new artistic director Mark Lamos.
What was once raw and explosive — with racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny abounding — now seems crude and contrived in a story of secrets, betrayals and power plays among men whose moral bankruptcy has landed them in desperate situations.
This testosterone turf has now been supplanted by the more authentic and complex voices of writers such as David Mamet and Neil LaBute who explore the ways of men via avenues that are less neat, schematic and obvious. Miller’s men wallow in the masculine midlife melodrama auds have seen all too often: the failed sports hero, issues with Dad, and that potent brew of denial, delusion and self-loathing.
For this production, instead of the 20th reunion as originally written, it’s further down the age track. But the failings of men in their late 30s are different than those in their 40s, and so the level of pathos changes. Placing the play in the post-Watergate era of the late 1970s also skews the dynamic and makes these men’s understanding of their lives and the world around them now ridiculously out of touch.
There’s George (Robert Clohessy), the sleazy and not-too-bright mayor of the small Pennsylvanian town; Phil, (Skip Sudduth), the corrupt, philandering businessman who supports the mayor’s re-election campaign but is now wavering (he’s also screwing George’s wife); James (Lou Liberatore), the mayor’s ineffectual campaign manager with fantasies of his own; and Tom (Tom Nellis), James’ alcoholic brother, who is quick with the besotted quip.
Missing is the fifth member of the famous team who has never returned to their annual gatherings to relive the glory days for reasons that will inevitably be revealed at the eleventh hour.
Overseeing these overgrown bad boys is the nameless Coach (John Doman), who still misguides their lives and absolves their lack of morality with a twisted creed of his own. If the play is to work at all, this character has to be a charismatic and compellingly controlling force. But as played by Doman on a singular note, this is a man whose blatant bigotry and jingoistic pep-talks add up to a tired record that few would replay, much less be inspired by.
Indeed, all the characters’ broad strokes are writ and played large, leaving auds to ponder the many narrative and thematic failings of the script and wonder who would believe or care about anyone in this dated whine-fest.