Jason Miller’s That Championship Season is a play about nothing less than life itself. In a microcosm under microspocic scrutiny, basketball becomes the shabby, crooked, treacherous struggle for survival, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, the author’s hometown, becomes America and, ultimately, the world. It is old-fashioned theater, if you will, but it compelligly stinks of the cold sweat of crass compromise, failure, and glossed-over despair. It is an essential work that cannot date, now in a shockingly on-target revival.
When the play opened in 1972 for a long run, winning both the Drama Critics’ Circle and Pulitzer Prizes, I wrote a closely-packed ten-and-a-half-page review (now reprinted in my book Uneasy Stages), from which I quote the following.
“There remains considerable faith in the solid backbone of America, the good and simple folk back in the small towns, the country that the two Walts, Whitman and Disney, could hear singing, the unspoiled, sweet salt of the earth. And it is these people that Miller reveals to be weak, cowardly, prejudiced, corrupt and sustained, if at all, by self-delusion. What makes the indictment stick is, first, that it is made from an evident position of intimate knowledge and understanding of the people portrayed, and, second, that the judgment is made regretfully, without rancor, almost with love.”
The setting is the annual reunion of four players at their former coach’s house, celebrating in 1972 Fillmore High’s 1952 Interstate High-School-Basketball Championship. The scorer of the last-minute winning basket, Martin, never shows up at these gatherings, for the good (and damaging) reason revealed near play’s end.
Coach—as he is solely known—is a fanatical bruiser, ardent fan of Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, and Joe McCarthy, for whom this victory, however ill-won, was and still is, everything. Yet the players—now 38 and arch conservatives—are all, in their various ways, losers. There is George Sikowski, the inept and insecure but boastful current mayor, up for re-election which he may very likely lose to the Jewish liberal Sharmen, whom he tries to smear with a defunct communist relative. Then there is James Daley, his campaign manager, the politically frustrated and bitter junior-high principal, father, among other children, of a contemptuous son. Having joylessly sacrificed himself to others all his life, he now feels even the future slipping away from him.
Phil Romano, known since their schooldays as the “dumb Dago,” is in fact their financier, now threatening to jump ship to Sharmen. He is a strip-mining, hard-drinking, womanizing, adulterous, blithely Cadillac-smashing blowhard, now secretly carrying on with George’s wife, but consumed with his sense of fundamental inadequacy. Finally, there is Tom Dailey, James’s brother. A cynical drunk, footloose and loose of tongue, whom James had to repeatedly rescue after collapses in sundry towns, he excels at destructive wit, making morbid fun of all of them, himself included.
The play records the interaction of the five, ranging from jocularity to violence, from absurd reliance on a decades-old victory that itself turns out a sham, to their nevertheless concluding in blissfully conspiratorial camaraderie. That the proudly displayed silver trophy engraved with their names turns out to be the receptacle for the vomit of one of them is symbolic of fiasco; but just as the cup can be washed clean, moral squalor can be whitewashed as the men recommit to their dishonorable fight for George’s re-election.
On an authentically cluttered, backward-harking living-room set by Michael Yeargan, in provincially respectable costumes by Jane Greenwood, and under Gregory Mosher’s electrically unsparing direction, the cast proves as histrionically impeccable as ethically crumbling. Jim Gaffigan’s George is grotesquely arresting in both bluster and deflation; Kiefer Sutherland’s James is a perfect worm turning forward and back with equal unease. Chris Noth’s Phil radiates phony assurance only to lapse into frightening self-recognition.
Jason Patric, the playwright’s son, manages to meld incisive sassiness with the sourness of the boozy bubble-buster, right down to movements that turn bibulous unsteadiness into a cocky dance. As for Coach, the superb English actor Brian Cox could not be more authentically Scranton, a benevolently ball-busting tyrant, no less funny in his ignorance as fearsome in his unthinking fervor.
That Championship Season scrupulously encompasses every low trait—racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, hypocrisy, mendacity, mud-slinging, reciprocal adultery and (lots of) whatnot. And yet it manages, as noted, to engage our shamefaced empathy. It even conjures up vividly three unseen spouses, succinctly evoking the range of problematic wifeliness. In one tragicomic piece, Jason Miller says at least as much as Arthur of that name in almost his entire oeuvre.
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John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.