BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
A triumph for the Public Theater in 1972, Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season” transferred to Broadway for a two-year run and nabbed every major prize: The Pulitzer, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Tony and Drama Desk awards.
Nearly 40 years later, the Broadway revival that opened Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre does not make a compelling case for this by now painfully naturalistic drama.
Veteran director Gregory Mosher and five good actors — Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth and Brian Cox among them — manfully try to pump life into Miller’s embodiment of the failed American dream, but the play appears clumsy and schematic today without acquiring yet the luster of antiquity.
Set in 1972 in Scranton — think Early Rust Belt — the play represents the 20th annual get-together of a winning high school basketball team with their beloved Coach (Cox) in his home. As they booze and reminisce, the middle-aged men variously reveal themselves as corrupt, immoral or otherwise rotten.
Heavily stuffed with racist-sexist-reactionary dialogue recounting adulterous affairs, dubious deals and bad behavior, the drama and its irony about all-American boys gone all-wrong as adults seems mighty obvious. Senior theatergoers may find Miller’s chewy slab of meat loaf to be palatable, but viewers accustomed to the sleeker dishes served by later playwrights like LaBute and Mamet are not so likely to swallow it.
Staging the two-act play straightforwardly on a large, realistic set crammed with dowdy details, Mosher obtains solid performances. Grandly blustering away at center stage, Cox does not quite convince as a veteran athletic coach from the coal-cracking region — he’s more United Kingdom than States in manner — but the other actors, including the late playwright’s son, Jason Patric, believably get drunk and dirty.
For all of their at times strenuous emoting, the actors cannot shout down the drama’s heavy creaking. Give “That Championship Season” another few decades to, well, season, and perhaps it will improve with further age. Unfortunately for now, it’s a former winner that should have stayed in retirement.
“That Championship Season” continues through May 29 at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, 242 W. 45th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.thatchampionshipseason.com.