Interview with The Cast of That Championship Season
Just the Guys, Candid and Rugged
Robert Wright for The New York Times
The ensemble cast of the Broadway revival of Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season,”
from left: Chris Noth, Brian Cox, Jim Gaffigan, Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland.
By PATRICK HEALY
Published: February 3, 2011
DONE for the day, the five actors in the new Broadway revival of “That Championship Season” kicked back in a Chelsea rehearsal room recently and shared wine and beer as they talked about their all-male ensemble, career choices, and the legacy of “The Lost Boys” and “24.”
The winner of the 1973 Pulitzer Prizefor drama and theTony Awardfor best play, “That Championship Season” follows a reunion of four high school basketball players whose lives soured after winning a state title and whose fears are expressed through racism and anti-Semitism. Kiefer Sutherland, Jack Bauer on “24,” is making his Broadway debut as a bitter junior high school principal;Jason Patric, his co-star in the vampire movie“The Lost Boys,”plays his alcoholic brother; Chris Noth(“The Good Wife,”“Sex and the City”), is a sleazy businessman; and Jim Gaffigan,the stand-up comedian, is the feckless mayor of their town. The host of the reunion is their coach, played byBrian Cox, who last starred on Broadway inTom Stoppard’s “Rock ’n’ Roll.”
The playwright is Mr. Patric’s father, Jason Miller, who played Father Damien Karras in“The Exorcist.”He died in 2001.The revival is scheduled to begin performances on Wednesday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. Patrick Healy, theater reporter for The New York Times, moderated the discussion. Here are excerpts.
Q. How much of this ensemble’s chemistry has to do with testosterone?
JASON PATRIC That’s part of it. We’ve bonded like a sports team. Parts of us have bled into our characters. Our repartee has become similar to the play’s.
JIM GAFFIGAN For instance the honesty of Jason Patric and the honesty of his character, Tom, are equally frightening to my character, George, and to Jim Gaffigan.
CHRIS NOTH [snidely] Honesty? You sound like the [expletive deleted] mayor.
KIEFER SUTHERLAND I feel very uncomfortable if too much time goes by away from these guys. Discovering your character is a really fragile process. I don’t want it to float away.
BRIAN COX This is a big step for these four guys because they don’t usually do plays. My life is based on doing plays, that was the culture I inherited. I never liked the theater. I always wanted to do movies.
Q. The five of you are busy in television, movies, comedy. What led each of you to Broadway — Kiefer and Jim, for the first time — to do “That Championship Season”?
COX I read the play, and it caught me. I was very vulnerable at the time.
PATRIC Jim had just broken up with him. [laughter]
COX I’ve been a little disillusioned of late. I have of late ——
NOTH [paraphrasing Hamlet] I have of late lost all my mirth.
COX I’d been thinking I don’t know why I’m living in New York. I mean, I’m here for my children, who get a great education here. But I’ve got to find some reason for being in the city. L.A. was fine. Sun. London, I’d lived there all my life. But living here was such a strain. Then [the director] Gregory [Mosher] sent me this play. I read it, and thought, wow, maybe I should go back to the theater. The play is about purity of purpose, and the one thing that my own life lacks, that my life used to have, was purity of purpose. It became compromised by everything else.
GAFFIGAN You’re really bumming me out.
COX For all the play’s xenophobic racism and what have you, it’s about loving one another. The coach has this total trust in these four guys, that at the end of the day things will be sorted out. And it does. Sort of.
NOTH I think it captures America so well.
COX The great thing about you Americans is you tried to get away from it all. The colonists came here to be free, to achieve something. And you’ve tried to do it for 200 years. You’ve screwed it up good and proper now, but you’ve had good moments. Your cinema is second to none, at least up until 1976.
NOTH Not “The Lost Boys”? [laughter] When was that?
SUTHERLAND AND PATRIC 1986.
Q. Kiefer, how did you come to the play?
SUTHERLAND Well, “24” was ending. I had moved to New York because my daughter was going to university here. I fell in love with the Village. But outside of that I had no purpose here. So I called up Jason. I had a lot of respect for a lot of Jason’s choices work-wise. And I didn’t know anyone here. Literally, I know more New Yorkers now as a result of this rehearsal process than I’d known in five years. I said, “Look, for the first time in nine years I’m going to have a chance to do whatever I want. What do you think I should do?” And he didn’t say, “That Championship Season.” He said: “What kind of films do you want to make? Another television show?” And I said yes to everything. But I hadn’t done a play since 1997, and that was ridiculous. So Jason sent me three plays. I read this play for the first time since drama school, and I knew Brian was involved. Jason was. I think Chris was involved ——
NOTH Not yet. Jason saw me in a play in California, came back and asked for my autograph. I said, “Who are you, kid?”
PATRIC I didn’t ask for your autograph. I said, “Can you get me Sarah Jessica’s autograph?” [laughter]
SUTHERLAND So I had no idea what to do. I started sleeping really late. I thought, well I’ll get to the gym by 4. No, I’ll get there by 6. You know what, I like working out at 9 at night. Without any kind of structure, my life just started to ——
PATRIC Become Jason Patric’s!
SUTHERLAND For me this play was too complicated, too challenging not to have a run at it. Look, I might run straight into a brick wall.
COX You will.
SUTHERLAND It would have been awful not to have tried.
NOTH [pointing to Mr. Sutherland] That’s America!
SUTHERLAND There’s nothing like being in New York with a sense of purpose. And there’s nothing more dangerous and destructive than being in New York without a sense of purpose.
Q. Jason, were you hoping to play brothers with Kiefer?
NOTH The other guys were too tall.
PATRIC You know, we worked together 25 years ago. I hadn’t seen Kiefer in 20 years. But I just thought he’d be perfect as James. I thought there was an element in Kiefer to be mined that was so much different from an iconic persona that he’d created on “24.” Some people play a wholly different character intentionally to demolish or diminish typecasting. That’s not the case. This character has a lot of Kiefer, and a lot of Kiefer’s strengths will illuminate this man’s weaknesses.
SUTHERLAND There’s great weakness in James, a desperation. To find the truth and the beats and the moments and the connection to the four other guys, I’ve had to really touch a fear of weakness, of panic.
COX Fear is common in men. It’s what leads men to bond. We’re a dying species. I had my DNA done recently, and the doctor said, eventually, women will self-ovulate. They won’t need us.
PATRIC But not in the next 50 years, right?
SUTHERLAND I want the name of this doctor.
COX This is what Jason Miller was writing about, men as a dying species. But I just want to reassure Jason of something: You and your like will be kept on as playthings, because women will still want to be pleasured. [laughter]
PATRIC I come in here to talk, and I become the vibrator.
Q. The play closed on Broadway in 1974, and this is the first revival there. Do the themes have resonance? Are they relevant?
NOTH I’m befuddled why this play hasn’t made a bigger mark.
PATRIC In the early ’70s what carried your play past Broadway was the touring productions that brought it to other towns, then into universities, where it was taught, and it was also very lucrative. But this play: the language, the sexuality, the uncomfortable male intimacy. There were a lot of towns that didn’t want the play.
COX Especially the towns with Jews in them. [laughter]
GAFFIGAN Here’s how I view it: It’s obviously going to be good. But I think everyone sitting around here wants it to be absolutely brilliant. I had this naïve belief of, O.K., here we go. And then, O.K., four more things to figure out. And then you discover there are eight more layers to this character. [whispers] I thought it would be a little bit easier.
NOTH I also wonder if drama critics today want a Tom Stoppard play ——
COX Spare me!
NOTH That this play would be seen as simplistic, which is wrong.
COX Stoppard is devoted to ideas, like rock ’n’ roll changing Communism in Czechoslovakia, and you think, that’s fine, that’s a big notion. Jason Miller is devoted to humanity. This play is tackling something as simple as a reunion of guys who won a trophy. That’s the tradition of great American drama. It doesn’t get full of itself.
PATRIC You know, my Dad wrote this play to get us out of poverty. What it became, in his own words, was beyond his wildest dreams. But he was never able to escape the glory, not unlike these five characters. Their struggle became his own. Now our own.