Directed by Thomas Kail
Written by Eric Simonson
Reviewed by Marion D.S. Dreyfus
Juggling. That’s what comes to mind as you sit transfixed by the terrific new play at the Longacre.
Juggling gets its power from two things: The juxtaposition of multiple balls or knives or bowling pins in the air, simultaneously, as the performer in front keeps up a running patter. And keeps those heavy, dangerous things in the air at all times.
With your expectation that they’ll fall. Especially if you’re sitting in the front row.
You hold your breath, convinced the agile guy doing his thing will ‘drop’ them, and all the whizzling, whirling heavy things in the air will plop, maybe onto your lap. Maybe into your face.
Just so, this fascinating study of the well-known animosity between the hoop greats, Indianian Larry Bird, and the equally fantastic Michigander, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, in a terrific long one-acter by Eric Simonson. The stage design accommodates the sport by having two pneumatic backboards with fixed hoops revolving onto the stage for many of the scenes featuring the two main characters. They do lay-ups and toss basketballs from various angles into the hoops. (Are they gonna miss? Will I get hit in the head, since I’m right next to them?)
They don’t. They are big guys. They have big hands. They command the ball, the stage—and you.
Peopling the stage is a cast of wonderful actors, black and white, with accents from French Lick to LA to Boston. They are hoopsters, managers, barristas, moms, the greats themselves, assistant coaches, media egos, and friends of the Celtics and Lakers. The action takes place from 1979 through to the present. Along with the net contrivance are screens and scrims that show you the actual games, foul lines, interviews and rivalries as they were telecast back in the day. The woman next to me, some sort of Celtic fanatic, grunted and feverishly repeated the wins and losses, hoarsely whispering: That was the actual game! That was when it was happenin’!
And as terrific as are all the revolving characters onstage, you soon realize they are just six dazzling (mostly very, very tall) people, doing a whole mess of roles. As we know, Larry Bird was a whiz, but was, let’s face, it, pretty doofy looking. The guy playing him onstage, Tug Coker, is much handsomer, a Nordic stony-faced monolith, as taciturn as Magic (played by the generous Kevin Daniels, who actually wrote to thank me for my rave Tweet praising him) is gregarious and winning.
Another thing that hits you as you watch, not far from spellbound, is that with most plays, even titans like Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill–let alone a Mamet, Shepard, Athol Fugard or Albee—they have their emotions cooked into the play. Absent the characters’ doing a creditable job onstage, you aren’t all that involved or moved. The pyrotechnics are on the boards, or you are becalmed in non-reactive dormancy. But because, even to a sports illiterate, we know the cultural givens of our beloved (or be-hated) cultural icons, the emotion can be far more nuanced and subterranean than in the flaunt-it! characterizations of most Broadway vehicles, Off-Broadway pleasers, or even your perennial straw-hat circuit faves.
What a delight to hear and see the laconic answers of this largely outstanding dramaturgic team, and yet laugh with knowing—we remember or have seen the stuff that went on before and after these captured onstage moments. You bring to it a lifetime of hearing the dish, reading the gossip and watching the blah-blah. We revel in the life given to them here, in the grainy film clips from TV and game telecasts, or as a clearly non-Bryant Gumbel (Francois Battiste) squeaks out some freeze-frame datum or other about the latest Celtic-Laker win, loss or rival moment. The coaches (Peter Scolari as Pat Riley and Red Auerbach, in flashback) devotion to their charges is evident. Bird’s mother’s obsessional stats-awareness (a spectacular Deirdre O’Connell) is hilarious, homey and believable. Bird is a stoic, totally taciturn tall presence (though miles more good-looking than his alter ego). Magic is engaging, lovable and delicious. We are let in on their ailments, aches and sprains and more … dire … diseases.
A particularly risible moment came amidst a two-fer argument between the two rivals, as offstage, a huge roar went up, and the two ball-players looked at one another and, simultaneously, knowingly dipped their heads, grimaced, and mouthed: “Michael…”
Credit where credit is due: The writing is not flashy but is constantly first-rate. Even without an intermission, two words sum up this welcome arrival on West 48th Street: Slam dunk.