The ‘N’ word gets a fresh airing in the mixed-bag Broadway revival of “That Championship Season” starring “24” tough guy Kiefer Sutherland.
So do “kike,” “Polack” and various words for females.
Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning snapshot of mediocre lives, unrealized dreams, craven hustling and one fine basketball victory was hot stuff when it opened in 1972 at the Public Theater.
It was kin to John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels, sympathetic yet acute in its portrayal of white, middle-aged, middle-American male dinosaurs facing extinction.
On Michael Yeargan’s too-gorgeous set -- a high-ceilinged parlor room whose mahogany solidity is made light by stained-glass windows and Peter Kaczorowski’s golden lighting -- director Gregory Mosher’s irony-free revival brings together an all-star cast for the boys’ reunion two decades after the Big Win.
The gathering includes the late playwright’s son, Jason Patric, as Tom Daley. He’s the prodigal, booze-pickled brother of James (Sutherland, playing hard against type as a gutless junior high school principal with political ambitions).
Comedian Jim Gaffigan is George, the buffoonish mayor, fighting for survival against a Jewish challenger.
Chris Noth plays swaggering businessman Phil Romano, whose wealth derives from strip-mining (“You can’t kill a mountain,” he says with assurance. “Mountains grow back!”) and whose power derives from political payoffs. He’s figuratively in bed with the mayor and literally in bed with the mayor’s wife.
Playing their once and always Coach, a font of bluster and aphorism, is the garrulous Brian Cox. The fifth member of the team is ever a no-show, perhaps because he knows what really went down in that final game back in 1952.
What unites these men beyond the engraved silver trophy on Coach’s mantle is fear: of blacks, Jews, women, change. Coach still mourns the passing of iconic red-baiters Senator Joseph McCarthy and Father Coughlin.
The men blithely recall the consequence-free rape of a mentally challenged girl.
Time may have improved my memory of the original production, which featured towering performances by Charles Durning, Paul Sorvino and Richard A. Dysart. For better or worse, Mosher resists the leavening tone of A.J. Antoon’s original, which observed these proceedings with one eye-brow subtly raised.
Moreover, Mosher hasn’t coaxed much more than whining and empty bluster from his cast. Hardest to take is Noth, who fills the theater with Serious Acting, entailing much grimacing and mangling of words.
Some snapshots -- witness Mosher’s revival last season of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” -- gain stature with time. Some are destined to remain snapshots.
Through May 29 at the Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St. Information: +1-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: *1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)