PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: That Championship Season—Five Stud Cards
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of the revival of Jason Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning That Championship Season.
While That Championship Season was percolating in the early '70s, starting to pour from pen to paper, its author Jason Miller was a journeyman actor playing poker with Oscar and Felix in a Casa Manana summer-stock production of The Odd Couple in Fort Worth. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the quintet of characters that spilled out had wild-card personas, tightly wrapped in rough-hewn masculinity.
The joker in the deck is Tom Daley, a somewhat potted Polonius who, regardless of his alcoholic intake, speaks the truth to all who can hear it. Few can, in the living room of his old basketball coach where he and his brother, James, and two other teammates have rallied to celebrate their 20-year-old state championship victory.
Truth, as Tom tells it and Jason Patric plays it in the revival that bowed at the Jacobs March 6, comes in short spurts of words—wisecracker-size—delivered from the sidelines and stealing focus like a magnet. In calling the play-by-play, the character is as dead-on accurate and infallible as Bill Stern, and Patric glides through the role as gracefully as Walter McGinn did in the 1972 original Broadway show.
But it's not as easy as it looks—not at all, insists Patric: "To keep your concentration with the four other guys on stage when you yourself don't speak for five pages at a stretch—it's so hard to do. And you have to keep up the degradation of the inebriation, too. The concentration is exhausting, but it's something I haven't done before." He's compensated, though, in landing a lion's share of the evening's laughs.
You can't say Patric never sang for his father. His real name is John Anthony Miller, and, when word reached him that there was interest in reviving his dad's play—which had made a clean sweep of trophies during its own championship season (the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award)—he stepped up to the plate and made sure that it actually happened.
"I pretty much had a hand in all of it," he concedes with some modesty. "We have to relaunch this play as an American classic, which it is. It's a masterwork, in fact."
To that end, he put on his casting cap and got to work. In addition to himself and Chris Noth, he takes a bow for bringing Kiefer Sutherland on board. (It seems they were "The Lost Boys" together in 1987—the vampire variety, not the James M. Barrie ones—and, although they'd been out of contact a couple of decades, Patric thought Sutherland would be perfect to play his care-giving big bro.) With all that work, you'd think he'd have a producer credit. "I have one," he shoots back, "but I wanted to be with my teammates. I didn't want to be with all the suits."
Sutherland is one of two resident Manhattanites in the cast only now getting around to making their Broadway debuts. "I moved here five years ago when my daughter entered college here. That's what brought me here, and now she has graduated."
There have been Broadway offers along the way, to be sure, "but it was very difficult with '24' going for nine years on television. A play is a minimum of a five-month commitment, but this was really just the first time where the timing worked out." He hopes, and expects, it'll happen again, now that his Broadway jitters have subsided.
"Every night before we start, I have nerves going through me, just trying to make sure I've everything in check." (You'd not suspect this from his assured delivery.)
"I love the character, and I love the play. It's very funny, when Jason first talked to me about doing the play, I hadn't read it for quite some time, so I got a copy and I read it without knowing which part he was actually thinking of me doing. I actually loved every character in that play, but playing James has been an absolute privilege."
The other "homey" turning Broadway actor is stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan, who honed his acting chops in films. "I've done a bunch of them, but this is my first time acting longer than ten minutes." And, he noticed the difference right away. "It's a completely different discipline. There's something about listening to the others, what they're giving, and staying in the scene without speaking. I found myself wanting to excel at the character. There is something—my wife calls it the theatre bug—that I feel I totally have now, and there is something so alive about doing it."
He's not anticipating any career change because of this bug. "My priorities are definitely the play right now, but I'm a comedian. That's what I do." And, it's what he'll continue to do. "Stand-up really helped me in feeling comfortable in front of an audience, in the communication that exists with the performer and the audience."
Noth wears well his synthetic-heel role, Phil Romano, a moneybags who cuckolds the small-minded, small-town mayor (Gaffigan) he is financing back into office.
"You gotta love whatever character you're doing," he acknowledges right off, "but I do feel bad for him in a way. For an actor, it's a delicious part because he appears to be one thing, but inside he's something else completely, and that peeps through a lot. He's sorta the bon vivant at the beginning and slowly starts to crumble."
Right into a big out-of-nowhere crying jag, in fact. "That was difficult to do because you don't have any words. You just have to break down. Usually when people cry, they're in a scene and they're talking. This, in particular, was a little more difficult because you're listening, listening, listening. For the last ten pages of the play, I don't say a word—and then I have to get to the point where everything's falling apart."
The ensemble, Noth says, pitches the lines around like a basketball, with occasional slam-dunks for punctuation. "People often talk about sports being like acting in terms of back and forth, back and forth. That's teamwork, especially in this play when you do have to be there for your fellow actor all the time. That kind of fluidity takes a lot of hard work to get there. That's why early previews shouldn't be seen."
The hub around which all this intense, verbal gimme-the-ball inner play spins is their beloved old coach, who grows progressively more bigoted and sinister as the evening and the drinking continue. It's a double-edged sword Brian Cox wields with considerable ease and authority. "He's a character with contradictions, and I like that," he says. "It means he is a human being—he's a very human guy.
"They had to cast my role first because that had to be the centric force for all these guys to operate. He's the hero, he's The Guy, and you gotta be The Guy. That's a big challenge. They've made it so easy because they've all been incredibly respectful.
"The play's about purity of purpose in its essence when it kinda goes wrong. And, it's about where bias comes from, how prejudice is built into a young personality."
Only four-fifths of the championship team shows up for the reunion. The mystery of the missing player unravels slowly but surely and upends the values of the coach.
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