Reviewing Brantley on `That Championship Season'

New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley gives a downbeat review today to the New York revival of Jason Miller's 1972 play "That Championship Season," about a Catholic high school basketball team's reunion 20 years after winning the state championship. I haven't seen the production, so I can't comment on that. But I think he is off-base in his scathing comments on the Pulitzer- and Tony-award-winning play Miller wrote. According to Brantley:

Season appears to have been assembled according to the rule book of Playwriting 101, 1952 edition. Each of the five characters here arrives with a Personality and a Problem, both as conspicuous as a gaudy necktie, and its not hard to predict the conflicts that will arise and the symmetry with which they will be presented. (The first act begins and ends with a character holding a rifle.)

Mr. [Jim] Gaffigan plays George Sikowski, the town mayor, who is uneasily facing re-election and is a Buffoon. Mr. [Chris] Noth is Phil Romano, the town Rich Man, whose fortune comes from strip mining, and a Cad. Mr. [Kiefer] Sutherland is James Daley, a school principal and an embittered Little Man who is tired of being small. Mr. [Jason] Patric (who is Mr. Millers son) portrays Tom, Jamess brother, a Cynical Drunk. They have gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of winning the state basketball championship and to honor Coach [Brian Cox], who made them what they are today.

Brantley arrives at the end of the review with the revelation that "That Championship Season" has much in common with Martin Crowley's 1968 play "The Boys in the Band," about self-loathing gay men. Hardly original. This, from Clive Barnes in his May 3, 1972 Times review of "That Championship Season":

This is an enormously rich play. It is one of those strip-all, tell-everything plays in the tradition of "Virginia Woolf" or "Boys in the Band." These are hollow men, bereft of purpose, clinging to the empty ambition of power. They believe in a past image of America, when Teddy Roosevelt was Emperor and life was a game to be won at all costs. They are morally and intellectually bankrupt. And yet they are also human, recognizable and even, in a way likable.

Barnes called it "the Broadway play of the season," even before it was on Broadway. It was "gorgeous and triumphant," depicting the characters' "long night's journey into day." It was "funny, obscene, tragic." What was formulaic and old-fashioned to Brantley seemed to be the stuff of Greek drama to Clive Barnes.The underlying theme of "That Championship Season," in my opinion, is that violence is the dark underside of the American quest for success at any cost - whether in foreign policy or basketball. Brantley seems to find that tiresome. I find it relevant.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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