- Associated Press - Friday, February 11, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - With five very different actors teaming up for a play on Broadway about friendly rivalries, the discussion around a restaurant table naturally turns ruthless: Exactly who in the group is the weakest link?

Is it Chris Noth? Jason Patric? Kiefer Sutherland? Brian Cox? Or maybe Jim Gaffigan?

“Talk to us each separately,” says Noth, laughing.

“I think we have to go on a daily basis,” jokes Patric.

“I was going to say hourly,” Sutherland muses.

“I would have said by the minute,” Cox says _ not to be outdone.

Those actor egos have apparently been dialed way down as the five prepare for the launch of a revival of “That Championship Season,” the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Jason Miller that started previews Wednesday.

“You don’t do something like this, certainly coming from our backgrounds, with the idea that your ego is going to be nourished or exercised in some way,” says Patric. “It’s the opposite: It’s why you actually do it.”

The plot centers on a group of former high school basketball stars who reunite at their coach’s Pennsylvania home 20 years after they won the state championship. The festive mood soon sours as the drinks kick in and old animosities flare up.

“The play is so balanced,” says Sutherland. “We’re the weakest link.”

Over lunch at the venerable theater-district hangout Sardi’s, the five gobble up steak tartar, cheddar burgers, Cobb salads and beef stew _ with a side portion of trash talk. They tease Patrick about his fluffy chest hair and the Scottish-born Cox about his homeland’s love of deep-fried Mars bars, but it’s clear these unlikely five have become friends. There’s even talk of them taking a field trip to Scranton, Pa., to soak up the play’s setting.

“The truth is, we hang out a lot,” says Patric. “It’s not forced _ we do. It’s tough when you’re doing eight hours a day, mind and body, and we still go out and have drinks afterward.”

Patric, star of “Sleepers” and “Narc,” has a deep connection to the piece: His father was the playwright. “That Championship Season” was only the second full-length play Miller wrote and it became his most successful. He died in 2001.

The play made its Broadway debut in 1972 starring Charles Durning, Richard A. Dysart, Walter McGinn, Michael McGuire and Paul Sorvino. A 1982 film version starred Robert Mitchum, Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach and Sorvino.

Tony Award-winning director Gregory Mosher, who helmed the recent Broadway revival of “A View From the Bridge,” approached Patric with the idea of reviving his father’s work. The actor wasn’t sure he wanted to be in it, but decided to help.

Mosher and Patric started by looking for someone to play the coach, the real anchor of the story. Cox, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran, was at the top of their list. “He’s amazing,” says Patric.

Then came Sutherland, a friend of Patric’s for decades ever since they starred in “The Lost Boys” in 1987. After eight years of “24,” Sutherland was ready for a change: “I wanted to get back to something that was going to be really challenging.”

Noth, Mr. Big in “Sex and the City” and Det. Logan on “Law & Order,” was the next target. He and Patric hike and run together, and Patric was impressed while catching Noth star in “Farragut North” at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. The last piece of this puzzle was “My Boys” comedian Gaffigan, the only one who had to audition for the role.

Each of the roles the younger men play _ a drunk, a womanizing businessman, a wussy school teacher and an inept mayor _ are juicy parts that any of the actors could play, but Sutherland is happy where the chips have fallen.

“If you spent the rest of your life doing one production of this every three years and played every single role, it would be fantastic,” he says. “But in the balance of this cast, certainly I’ll speak for myself, I’m exactly where I should be.”

To prepare for the play, Cox went to his first basketball game _ Syracuse versus St. John at Madison Square Garden _ and kept his attention focused on the coaches. The others are asked what they did to get ready.

“I got drunk in Scranton,” Sutherland offers, smiling.

“And that was before he knew about the play,” Patric shoots back.

Joking aside, the men know what they have to work with is unusual: A strong play with political and personal resonance, and one in which each of them gets almost equal time on stage to shine.

“It’s rare,” says Patric. “To have five equal parts makes it difficult because there’s always an invisible web connecting us. We will never get this opportunity again in our lives.”

Despite the high testosterone, the actors insist all is calm behind the scenes.

“It’s a very guy situation, but I haven’t sensed an enormous amount of machismo _ and that’s not just because Jason is kind of feminine,” jokes Gaffigan. “Believe me, in this game of hierarchy, I would be on the low end of it. But I don’t get a sense of that.”

Noth agrees. “We have so much work to do, there’s just no time for that kind of stuff,” he says. “We’ve all been in this game for a long time. The play is Everest and you don’t have the time to squabble.”

As if to prove their kinship, four of them pull out their cell phones _ revealing the exact same, slightly out-of-date Samsung. That’s right: Noth, Patric, Sutherland and Cox didn’t know it, but they each have the identical phone.

“It was very odd the first time we realized,” Sutherland says.

“This is a brotherhood!” Noth proclaims.

OK, but what about Gaffigan? Well, he sheepishly confesses, he has an iPhone.

“That’s why he had to audition,” Patric says.

The table erupts in laughter.




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