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Pulitzer, schmulitzer: The dramatic merits of That Championship Season, Jason Miller’s 1972 study in booze, betrayal, and bigotry in Scranton, Pa., have always eluded me. It’s all broad strokes and overwrought emotion, and every time I see it performed, I’m struck by how much it feels like a put-on. Not that it’s funny. That Championship Season isn’t parody—although God knows it’s ripe for it—but there is something bafflingly arch and self-satisfied in Miller’s writing, as if he’s daring us to give a damn about his characters. Plus, from a purely dramatic perspective, there’s just not a hell of a lot there: Four high-school basketball stars, now faded into paunchy and bellicose middle age, visit their old coach and clash repeatedly and predictably as the gin-and-whisky-soaked evening progresses. Secrets, such as they are, get exposed; the requisite revelations, when they finally thud into place, end up revealing very little.
Now about the same age as the bloated ex-jocks it depicts, That Championship Season could stand some freshening up. Unfortunately, American Century Theater’s revival misses that opportunity. Which is not to say that the show it’s presenting isn’t markedly different than previous productions. It’s louder, and it’s slower. (And, yeah—it replaces Miller’s white Catholic guys from Pennsylvania with black guys from Alabama.)
The slack pacing is surprising; you wouldn’t expect a show that’s essentially three acts of overheated arguments to lack vigor. Yet the actors somehow manage to dawdle over Miller’s lines even as they bellow them at the tops of their voices. And that’s a problem, because dialogue like this, which caricatures when it should characterize, does not benefit from added volume or a more measured delivery.
Nothing in That Championship Season goes unsaid, even though by the second intermission you’ll likely be wishing that something, anything, would. Every thought is instantly expressed, in lines so overstuffed with exposition (even well into Act Three, when the plot should really start paring itself down and breaking into a brisk trot) that you can actually witness a character getting flatter and more cartoonishly broad over the course of a single speech.
The actors give it an honest go, but the performances lack modulation. Maybe they’ve been directed to play up the more archetypal aspects of their respective roles: The Crooked Politico (Morgan James Hall), the Sleazy Businessman (Omar A. Bah), the Long-Suffering Schmoe (Ron Lincoln), the Bitter Boozehound (Joseph A. Mills III), and the Crypto-Fascist Authority Figure (Elliott C. Moffitt). Whatever the reason, at an early showing, the actors still seemed to be struggling to connect with their characters.
As the corrupt mayor, Hall exudes a believable glad-handing brio, Mills’ sardonic lush gets most of the laugh lines, and Moffitt’s Coach is both severe and lachrymose in a way that rings true. But all of the performances start and end in the same place, with little meaningful variation in tone or aspect, so you’re left with the impression that the events of this long slog of an evening are simply going to slide off them.
Most disappointing, nothing much comes of this production’s laudable desire to shake things up with an all-black cast. It’s intriguing to imagine how the casual, omnidirectional bigotry of the original characters might sound ripped from its original setting. Turns out, it sounds kind of silly, and—because Bishop and company haven’t reimagined the show but simply recast it—it plays like an afterthought.
Michael Switalski’s set looks fittingly rec-room-shabby, and Rip Claassen’s costumes evoke the ’70s setting (although Mills’ wardrobe is maybe too distractingly Huggy Bear by half.)
Some future production of That Championship Season, presented more nimbly and less broadly, might make the trifling, bilious epiphanies these characters experience more worthy of note. That possibility can’t be completely discounted yet. But it’s getting close.