- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

In the pantheon of hairy-chested dramas, Jason Miller’s 1972 “That Championship Season” is among the most hirsute. This hooch-infused, hate-filled and self-loathing slugfest among a basketball coach and his winningest team makes David Mamet look like Papa Smurf and the movie “300” seem like a bunch of guys running around in Tab Hunter’s old swimsuits.

American Century Theater’s intense and uneven production under the direction of Ed Bishop (who headed up the theater’s invigorating staging of “The Emperor Jones” last season) doesn’t try to temper the salty language and vehemently anti-Semitic and misogynistic sentiments expressed in the play for a sensitive modern audience. In fact, the play’s corrosive energy stems from the uninterrupted spewing of bile toward the women and ethnic groups these men feel have wronged them.

Mr. Bishop creates a tacit “you’re among friends” atmosphere throughout “That Championship Season,” an intimacy that fosters camaraderie as well as the betrayals, resentments and disappointments that have piled up through the years. Mr. Miller’s original play was set in a predominately white, blue-collar Pennsylvania town, but American Century’s production relocates the action to a small Southern city and an all-black cast.

The play takes place in a single night, the 20th reunion of a basketball team that catapulted the high school into the state championship. Coach (Elliott Moffitt) promises an evening of drinking, carousing and reminiscing for his “boys,” now approaching middle age. Instead of drifting happily into the past, the team reveals the corruption and dissension that has ripped them apart — a reflection of the decline of rock-solid middle-class America in the 1960s.

The men bear little resemblance to the golden boys of the 1950s. Tom Daley (Joseph A. Mills III) is a hippie drunk in an Afro and bell-bottoms, and his brother James (Ron Lincoln) seethes with resentment over his role as caretaker and perpetual toady. Phil Romeo (Omar A. Bah) is wealthy and influential, but he’s an ethical sleazebag. George (Morgan James Hall) is a do-nothing mayor who will do anything to get re-elected, while Coach recently has been forced into retirement for disciplining a player by breaking his jaw.

Coach has orchestrated the evening to be a combination trip down memory lane and pep talk because he doesn’t like what has happened to the men who once held such potential. By the end of the night, Coach is defeated by the sense of failure and resentment that has settled over his team like a toxic cloud — and ultimately he’s crushed by his own bitterness and bigotry.

“That Championship Season” is a demanding play to watch, seething with the acrid anger of men who blame everyone and everything but themselves. They seek solace in past glories, but even their one brief, shining moment as state champs is marred by uncertainties.

As is the case with many American Century productions, the acting acumen varies erratically, ranging from Mr. Mills’ arresting turn as the laconic loser Tom Daley to stumbling and subpar performances from the rest of the cast. More consistent acting would have raised “That Championship Season” to battered-hero status, but as it stands, it isn’t even a contender.

**

WHAT: “That Championship Season” by Jason Miller

WHERE: American Century Theater, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 28.

TICKETS: $23 to $29

PHONE: 703/553-8782

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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