Loyalty, friendship, trust, and personal self-worth are the underlying themes set forth in the revival of the 1972 drama, That Championship Season. Set in a small Pennsylvania town, the show revolves around the 20th reunion for the players of the state championship high school basketball team. The five protagonists attending include Chris Noth, now the well-heeled, yet morally corrupt, town bigshot; Jim Gaffigan, the banal, self-important buffoon, running for re-election as mayor; Kiefer Sutherland, as a meek, unassuming Junior High School principal; Jason Patric, an unrepentant alcoholic; and Brian Cox, their fiery, bigoted, and anti-Semitic coach.
As the play unfolds the former teammates and their coach are all smiles and backslapping horseplay. Liquor flows continuously, lubricating the simmering conflicts and intense feelings about to bubble to the surface. They are celebrating and reliving old times but, as the evening unfolds, they are also transfixed by the mayor’s re-election campaign. The good times soon disintegrate as talk of the campaign, shifting political alliances, infidelity, and personal crises and demons come to the forefront. All along the coach, who has dictated their lives since their high school days, tries to keep his team together, using whatever methods he deems fit—from cajoling to pleading to outright threats. He is in command; he is still running the plays.
That Championship Season is more a meditative work, sometimes crackling with energy and explosiveness. But these are tired men with deep-rooted feelings of inadequacies and self-esteem. They are scornful and feel trapped in their small-town environment. Think of a more sardonic George Bailey from the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Their conversations are not necessarily addressed directly to each other as if they truly care about what someone is saying.; as if these were close friends genuinely interested in each other’s lives.
All five performers are first rate. Jim Gaffigan, making his Broadway debut, uses his comedic talents to humanize his character, but he is no slouch as the dramatic tensions begin to build. Kierfer Sutherland, playing against type—no super agent Jack Bauer here—is very believable as a milquetoast, self-pitying principal whose grandiose plans for himself are saddeningly heartbreaking. Chris Noth, while his overall performance was fine, seemed to occasionally be going through the motions with his character, something director Gregory Mosher should have firmed up. Jason Patric is superb. He lingers in the background for much of the production as he continually refuels his alcoholic needs. He is the soul of the group, speaking infrequently, but honestly and puncturing the hypocritical talk throughout the evening. Brian Cox, the coach, is the glue that holds the show together. He veers from the congenial host, continually urging everyone to have another drink as if that would solve all the night’s problems to panicked manipulator attempting to restore a warped sense of calm and serenity to the unfolding chaos. He clings to the vestiges of his past life as well as his control over the now grown men. They are all he has left in a world that has repudiated his heroes--Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy—and pushed him, his hatreds and prejudices, aside.
Director Gregory Mosher lets the action unfold at a more layered, organic pace which works, for the most part, but does drag towards the end of Act II. He allows the actors to fully realize their roles without a lot of histrionics or theatricality.
That Championship Season, a revival that still resonates today.