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THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON at New Phoenix: testosterone on display!

THE BASICS: THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, the 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Jason Miller, directed by Kelli Bocock-Natale, starring Richard Lambert, Victor Morales, John Kreuzer, Greg Natale, and Mark Donahue as “Coach” runs through April 7, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. at The New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. Plenty of parking on Elmwood Avenue. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. (853-1334). Soda, beer, wine available. Runtime: A little over 2 hours with two 10-minute intermissions.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: On the thirtieth anniversary of their 1952 victory in the Pennsylvania state championship game, four members of the starting lineup of a Catholic high school basketball team gather once again at the Scranton home of their coach to drink, reminisce, and celebrate their “glory days.” Their high school motto should have been Sic transit gloria (“glory fades”).

George Sitkowski (Richard Lambert) has become Scranton’s mayor, but times are changing and it bothers everyone that he may lose his re-election to a Jew. Phil Romano (Victor Morales) has become very wealthy with some political help from George, but this “old boys network” is going to need some re-wiring once it’s revealed that while Phil is helping George financially, he’s also having an affair with the Mayor’s wife. James Daley (John Kreuzer) is a bitter local junior high school principal who thinks he should have done better in life while his brother Tom (Greg Natale) is an alcoholic. Even as adults, they act like adolescents and continue to look to their racist, sexist, bullying coach (Mark Donahue) for guidance. The fifth man once again abstains and only at the end is the reason revealed.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Could any play be more timely? During this month of March, 2018 with headlines concerning Catholic malfeasance and coverups, Presidential racism, sexism, and bullying, #MeToo misogyny, and, of course, basketball, you can be a fly on the wall of this “boy’s club” and watch men behaving badly. The play never goes out of style, and has been adapted into two movies, one in 1982 starring Robert Mitchum as “Coach” and one in 1999 starring Paul Sorvino. 

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama goes to “a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” While the cash prize is modest ($15,000) the prestige is unmatched, especially when winners look at the company they keep. Just FYI, this is the third Pulitzer winning play on stage in Buffalo this March, the other two being ‘NIGHT MOTHER by Marsha Norman and DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar.

A random selection of past Pulitzer winners recently on area stages that you might have seen (or want to see in 2018) include: Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda; Between Riverside and Crazy, by Stephen Adly Guirgis; Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris; In The Heights, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes; Doubt, a parable, by John Patrick Shanley; Proof, by David Auburn; Dinner With Friends, by Donald Margulies; How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel; Keely and Du, by Jane Martin (a pseudonym); Glengarry Glen Ross, by David Mamet; and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds, by Paul Zindel.

So, what is it about those plays? Well, one thing is that they begin right away without a lot of set up, the action is relentless, and there’s not one bit of dialog that isn’t moving the play forward. The characters can be nuanced, complex, and fully three dimensional, but by God you know who they are. In other words, these are the plays that make going to the theater worthwhile. And THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON is one of those plays.

In other words, these are the plays that make going to the theater worthwhile. And THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON is one of those plays.

The play is well directed with good dramatic arcs. However, there is a lot more movement than I thought would be evident at a reunion where the two principle activities are drinking and arguing among men approaching 50. On the other hand, these are guys used to circling around the court, always aware of where each person belongs, and, in fact, they even act out the winning shot, so all that on-stage action fits.

The set by Chris Wilson is perfection. Imagine what a retired Catholic high school coach’s living room in 1982 would look like and it ain’t glamorous. It’s all dark greens and faded browns and tans, with a dark wooden gun rack, phonograph, and trophy stand with the huge championship cup dominating the décor.

This is definitely a drama for grown-ups. If you liked GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, if you like gritty, dialog-intensive dramas, you’ll like THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON.                      

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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