That Whining Season

By Geary Danihy

Watching That Championship Season, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Jason Miller that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, is like pulling down a photo album from some 30 years ago, leafing through the pages and ruminating on how much things have changed, and how glad you are that they have.

Although the play took Broadway by storm when it opened in 1972, the years have not been kind to it – what was once shocking, perhaps even riveting, is now somewhat irritating and, alas, tedious, for the one-act drama is basically an exercise in the various ways men can screw up their lives and then whine about it. If you met this group at a party you’d distance yourself immediately. Unfortunately, you don’t have that option here.

The premise is simple: four men, now in their 40s, gather at the home of their former high school basketball coach for a reunion to commemorate the year they won it all – the Pennsylvania state championship – against great odds. It was the defining moment for all of them and the thrust of the play is that each, in his own way, has slid from that high point down into a slough of greed, alcohol, corruption or debilitating self-deprecation. It doesn’t take long for that good old team spirit to start falling apart and the revelations to bubble to the surface.

One of the reasons the play has not aged well is that it is steeped in 70s self-consciousness about racism, bigotry and male-female relationships. As Coach (John Doman) spews out his venom about blacks or Jews or Phil Romano (Skipp Sudduth) reveals his misogynistic view of women, their words fall heavily on our ears. Yes, we are supposed to make allowances for the fact that these characters should not be judged by today’s standards, but by any standards they are simply off-putting.

Director Mark Lamos has given the production a sense of upward movement as the revelations begin to pile up, but this movement is thwarted by how Miller structured the play, especially in its final 20 minutes when Coach leaves his house and then has several of his guests join him, one by one, outside. It’s an obvious contrivance to clear the stage of characters so others might interact. Worse, from the point of view of momentum, is Coach’s self-serving monologue near the close of the play. It’s basically exposition that explains why Coach is the way he is, and it brings the action, such as it is, to a grinding halt.

The cast, though quite capable, seems not to have achieved sufficient cohesion, at least not on opening night – for there’s a certain stiffness in the opening moments that would be appropriate if these former school buddies had not seen each other in 20 years. In fact, save for Tom (Tom Nelis), they supposedly interact almost daily: George (Robert Clohessy) is the mayor; James (Lou Liberatore), Tom’s brother, is a high school principal and George’s campaign manager; and Phil is a rich businessman who contributed to George’s first campaign. This stiffness is manifested in many ways, including Clohessy’s habit of shooting out his arm to point at a fellow actor when he is delivering a line. Perhaps this movement is meant to reveal George’s insecurity – a false bonhomie -- but if it is a character tic it soon disappears.

There are moments of emotional tension, as well as humor, in the production, and the set by David Gallo is dead-on, for it is a visual manifestation of who Coach is, what with its dark wood, out-of-date television, a deer’s head displayed above the fireplace and photos of Teddy Roosevelt, Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Coach’s three heroes) perched prominently on the mantle. However, it’s difficult to care about any of these characters and the final revelation, meant to be shattering, ends up being a “So what?” moment.

As a society, we’ve come a long and often painful way since 1972. In the process, we’ve grown; unfortunately, That Championship Season hasn’t grown with us. It is of a certain time, and like the photos in that dusty album, viewed today it evokes a mixture of laughter and embarrassment.

That Championship Season runs through Saturday, Sept. 12. For tickets or more information call 227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

 

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