Theatre Mirror Reviews - "That Championship Season"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Jason Miller
directed by Jeannie-Marie Brown

Tom Daley … Dann Anthony Maurno
George Sikowski … Bruce-Robert Serafin
James Daley … Jim Muzzi
Phil Romano … Gary Galonek
Coach … Jeff Gill

A Pulitzer Prize for Drama is no guarantee of a play’s immortality; the play has a better chance of survival if it is first deemed a popular success. Such winners as A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, SOUTH PACIFIC and DEATH OF A SALESMAN would have gone on to become classics, anyway, but whatever happened to THE SHRIKE, J.B., or ALL THE WAY HOME? (Aside from OF THEE I SING!, OUR TOWN and, possibly, HARVEY, all of the Pulitzer winners from WHY MARRY? (1918) to STATE OF THE UNION (1946) are more or less forgotten.) In time a play’s Pulitzer can no longer be used to lure an audience into seeing it --- the play must now rise or fall on its own and run the risk of the public saying, “Who cares?” I had these sobering thoughts after attending the Stanley B production of Jason Miller’s THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON which received the 1973 Pulitzer Prize and the New York Critics Circle and Tony Awards, among others, and its original Broadway production ran close to a thousand performances --- all of which once counted for something, yes? --- the Stanley B evening, over thirty years later, had only five bodies in the house.

Is THE CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON still worth seeing? Yes, should you crave an old-fashioned, red-blooded drama that keeps to the unities of Time, Place and Action: a retired high-school coach hosts a reunion for four of his basketball stars from the Class of ’52; as the evening progresses the five men, fueled by drink and resentments, turn on one another until each man is revealed to be a louse or a loser with the Coach as the American Dream’s biggest sucker of them all. Is the play still timely? Its social context is dated --- the play came out in the final years of the Vietnam War when half of America was turning a critical spotlight upon itself while the other half took to wearing shades --- but the men’s camaraderie, their anger, their wasted lives and the emotional wreckage they wreak still pack a punch. Is the Stanley B production worth attending? Yes, definitely: two of its resident actors, Bruce-Robert Serafin as George, one of the Lost Boys, and Jeff Gill as the almighty Coach, continue to be an intriguing contrast between personality and technique and if Jeannie-Marie Brown’s motherly direction turns Mr. Miller’s raging bulls into cranky children who have stayed up too late, this is not necessarily a criticism but an observance on how men in general and men’s acting in particular have become softer-grained, over the years, just as women and actresses are now sharper and more aggressive. For some reason, Ms. Brown ends the play a few pages shy with a treasured broadcast of the Big Game coming out of nowhere instead of from the Coach’s record player; I gather Ms. Brown wanted to close with a more ironic tableau than the original one of self-deluded optimism.

A well-known film star said, years and years ago, that the key to acting is to look someone in the eye and to tell the truth; if that is the case then it sums up Mr. Serafin for everything he does onstage is simple, direct and unpretentious --- here is an honest actor. On the other hand, such honesty limits Mr. Serafin to roles in sync with his bluff, hearty self whereas his chosen profession draws upon artifice as well as truth (when overly-hot chicken is served, two actors mime the burning sensation; Mr. Serafin picks up a piece without a qualm). If Mr. Serafin chooses to paint only in primary colors, a consistent portrait is nevertheless created; only when he is on the sidelines, watching others, does he tend to go slack (a common trait shared by film actors when they take to the stage: they either come into focus or fade out).

To see Mr. Gill perform is to see a cut wire thrashing about emitting sparks but the sparks are cool and controlled, never rampant or hazardous. Unlike Mr. Serafin, once Mr. Gill switches on, he stays on and his smiling intensity can adapt itself to crusader or tormentor. His Coach lacks the Old Testament temperament described in the script --- this is a small, angry man, instead --- but Mr. Gill remains fascinating, nevertheless, as he is ever shaping the very air about him without leaving any ham in his wake. There may not be a Lear in him, but Mr. Gill is ideal for Mr. Pinter’s plays where something is always stirring beneath the chitter-chatter --- Mr. Gill could make a funny-frightening bum in THE CARETAKER and is dapper enough to be the threatened husband in OLD TIMES, using memories to hold onto his wife. (And I’m not forgetting him as Herbie in GYPSY, either.)

Gary Galonek’s Phil, the evening’s cad, is cut from the same cloth used for his Moss in Stanley B’s production of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS --- take away the strut and you take away the characterization --- and Jim Muzzi’s limited palette works to his advantage as James the hapless political wannabe: when his James rants, no one takes him seriously, as intended. Dann Anthony Maurno turns the role of Tom, the alcoholic voice of reason, into the production’s plum. Actors love to play drunkards --- all those tics and mannerisms --- but Mr. Maurno forsakes a showy turn to expose the tarnish of a former golden boy: his Tom turns sodden, layer by layer, with sudden pockets of clarity, as he mocks and enlightens through the thickening wall of his addiction. Mr. Maurno’s detailed, low-key performance became a memorable turn, after all --- I’m sure the other four members of the audience would agree. [Insert stuck-out tongue, here.]

Jon Savage’s low-budget set design is both realistic (what a mess at the end of the show!) and symbolic (a huge blow-up of five young basketballers dominates the action); a lot of economic thought has gone into the design and the results are pleasing. I wouldn’t be surprised that had he a more lavish budget that Mr. Savage wouldn’t change a thing.

"That Championship Season" (2-26 June)
Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 933-8600

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