Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Drama in Scranton: Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON

To most people who've even heard of him, Jason Miller is famous for two things, both of which took place in 1973: winning the Pulitzer for his play That Championship Season and starring as Father Damien in the William Friedkin–directed The Exorcist. The play may be weirder than the movie, and certainly a darker commentary on its times.

Four men who, years back, were on a winning basketball team, are joined for a reunion with their coach (whom the play labels "Coach"): George, the mayor, up for reelection, is incensed to be running against anyone, but especially bothered by his opponent's environmentalism and Jewishness; Phil, his campaign manager, had a fling with George's wife (this will come out), and is a businessman who relies on political favors; James is a junior high school principal who is expecting an endorsement from George to be head of the school board; his brother, Tom, drinks and makes cynical comments from the sidelines.

There was a fifth member of the winning group of starters, but the reason he hasn't stayed in touch is revealed, eventually, to be the fault of Coach. While the men drink and generally fall out with each other, Coach tries to remind them of their greatness, but the more he speaks, the more we see that he's a bigot, a brute, and that his version of manhood—built around winning at all costs—is perhaps one reason these men remain trapped in an eternal adolescence, none of them truly comfortable in his life.

Almost immediately, the play is marvelously foul—not rich with profanity, like Mamet, but locker-room brutal with sexual, racist, and misogynist language. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, always audible, and the characters bounce their lines off each other as if they were passing the basketball from one to another in that famous winning game's final seconds—which is likely the exact effect Miller was after.

Aside from Tom, who is likable simply because he stands back from much of the fighting, making smart remarks, none of the characters seems better than pathetic, and over the course of the three acts, everyone slips lower in your estimation. In Coach's exhortations, you hear a dying gasp of a clawing, grasping world that is often portrayed as full of men who worked hard and prayed to be good; these men aren't good, and the world they've made has nothing permanent or kind about it. This is another Lost Generation, the kind Updike captured in Rabbit, Run—another tale of the (post-war) modern damned man for whom the metaphor of life-as-a-game hasn't paid off in any satisfying way.

The play's three acts come right atop each other; we're witnessing a few hours in these characters' lives, which makes the rapid unraveling somewhat unconvincing. Like many American plays of its time, its oddly structured, caught between literalism and symbolism, ending abstractly, more satisfying in the moment than taken as a whole.

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