“That Championship Season”

--Irene Backalenick

“That Championship Season,” with its themes of racism and anti-Semitism, proved to be a hit when it opened in New York in 1972. But today’s audiences, on seeing the Westport Country Playhouse revival, are having mixed reactions. On the negative side are comments that this Jason Miller drama is “dated,” and “no longer applicable."

Whether or not “That Championship Season” is dated is beside the point. What remains timeless is the underlying theme that some men remain boys, even into middle age. And those who reach their glory days in high school may never learn to cope with the real world or continue to grow—a tragic note indeed.

The play (set in the early ‘70s) deals with a coach and his four “boys” who are celebrating the 20th reunion of their high school basketball team. They meet annually to celebrate the state championship that they took in the ‘50s.

Initially, all is roughhouse camaraderie at the Coach’s home, as he and his stars bring in the Kentucky Fried Chicken and open whiskey bottles. But gradually the darker side emerges. In one way or another, their lives now reflect failure—certainly a failure of values. One, the local mayor, attempts questionable deals to win the next election. Another is a wealthy businessman engaged in shady practices in his personal and professional life. A third is a disappointed high school principal, hoping for a share of the spoils. Only the fourth sees the world as it really is, and offers sharp, sardonic comments. But he is a hopeless alcoholic.

Angry battles erupt, as each attempts to further his own greedy interests. But only Coach can bring them around, achieving reconciliations. In stressing “teamwork,” he takes them back to that safe, comfortable era of their high school days. Coach himself is still mired in that period. Still a bigot, his heroes continue to be such icons as Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin. But no matter. Playing the tough but loving parent, he turns the scrappers, once more, into a working team.  

In this Playhouse production, director Mark Lamos provides an energetic, absorbing evening, with generally good performances. Of particular note is John Doman as the Coach, who offers a chilling portrayal. And Tom Nelis, as the drunkard, is lucky enough to be given the best lines. But all (including Robert Clohessy, Lou Liberatore, and Skipp Sudduth) are solid, experienced players who handle the material well.

In short, “That Championship Season” still has something to say, even though that high school era is long gone.

This review appears shortly after Sept. 3, 2009 in the Connecticut Post and on nytheaterscene.com

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