Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are personably depicted in a new bio-play
BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Frankly, I know zip about basketball but -- since I know everything about the theater -- I am here to tell you that “Magic/Bird” sure looks like a winner on Broadway.
Opening on Wednesday at the Longacre Theater, “Magic/Bird” tells very well an engrossing story about the rivalry and eventual friendship between basketball Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Playwright Eric Simonson, who did so ably by a football legend with “Lombardi,” now gives sports- and theater-loving customers alike an enjoyable mix of strong story, smart writing and real-life video that zooms by in 100 minutes. Director Thomas Kail’s staging provides plenty of punch, complete with fine acting and sharp visuals.
Essentially, “Magic/Bird” studies two competitive greats who hate/admire each other over the years they led their respective teams to triumph through the 1980s. Simonson depicts their careers in quick, parallel scenes that reveal the men’s contrasting natures. Johnson is seen in both his easygoing persona as Earvin and as his flashy Magic self. Bird is presented as a close-mouthed, slow-talking gentleman.
Both men are shown to be passionately devoted to their profession.
The brisk series of scenes culminates in a longer, relaxed sequence when the two legends, unhappily shooting a commercial for sneakers in Bird’s home town, finally become friends.
This warm and funny passage is characteristic of the entire play, which smoothly melds abundant humor, human details and basketball lore to chronicle an unlikely real-life bromance.
An underlying theme about these men bridging the racial divide is quietly effective, as are the parts relating to Johnson’s HIV condition. Let’s also mention that the script surprisingly contains no foul language, so it’s a suitable show for younger viewers.
Stylishly staging the action on the glossy deck of a basketball court, Kail paces the play confidently and swiftly. Two tall and talented young actors, Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker, make the personable most of their respective characters as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They also look mighty authentic in their moves as athletes
A smooth Jerry Buss and a cigar-chomping Red Auerbach. One of my favorites, Deirdre O’Connell is especially winning as Bird’s basketball nut of a mom and also as a sympathetic sportswriter. Together, O’Connell and Scolari are droll in a couple of tavern interludes as rabid Celtics fans confronted by a Lakers admirer.
Francoise Battiste neatly portrays their worthy combatant in the pub as well as several other people, including a high-pitched Bryant Gumbel. Robert Manning, Jr., easily handles six different characters and, like Battiste, looks comfortable around a basketball.
Howell Binkley’s dynamic lighting, David Korins’ flexible setting and Paul Tazewell’s fast-changing clothes contribute a good deal to the effectiveness of Kail’s excellent production.