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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Bird, the name after the slash of Eric Simonson's latest sports celebrity bio-play didn't hit home with me at all. My husband Mike, who's less of a basketball luddite, filled me in on Larry Bird his and Earving "Magic" Johnson's long rivalry as stars of the Celtics and the Lakers and their off-the-courts friendship. Mike performed the same service when Simonson's Lombardi opened. As that play was sponsored by the National Football League, so the National Basketball League is on board for Magic/Bird, with permission of Bird and Johnson, and active participation by the latter via a talkback.
I took my sports expert along for last Saturday afternoon's press preview at the Longacre Teater where Magic/Bird has now officially opened for an open run. The audience was, as it was at Lombardi, divided between sports enthusiasts (among them, lots of fathers and sons) and theater goers who probably hoped to see a compelling human interest story and perhaps gain an appreciation of basketball's mass audience appeal.
So how did Lombardi playwright Simonson and director Thomas Kail (best known for the award winning musical In the Heights) do in turning a story that's no more a natural fit for Broadway as the basketball court rivalry of Johnson and Bird was for a friendshi? Simonson once again does what he can to strike a balance between what the fan base wants — plenty of dribbling and insider basketball talk — and a more broad-based human interest story to draw in "regular" theater goers. The result once again demonstrates that you can rely just so much for an authentic stage pictures can go to sustain a less than fully engaging drama.
While Magic/Bird's focus is firmly focused on basketball, it rarely rises above its newsreel aura. The few scenes that are most dramatically engaging come when the spotlight shifts from the public to the private personas, notably a scene in Bird's Indiana home where Johnson has accepted a lunch invitation from Bird's mother (the always wonderful Deirdre O'Connell). Similarly engaging, personality revealing snippets involve interviews with a reporter (another role for O'Connell). In one of these the outgoing Johnson presciently states “I always wanted to be a businessman.” In another, the more private and taciturn Bird snaps at a question about the effect of his being on the Celtic team on race relations “Ask me something about basketball.”
Kail has staged this split personality play without any big names (transalation = box office draws): In the title roles we have the big brawny Kevin Daniels as the limelight friendly Johnson and the skyxcraper tall Tug Corker as the media shunning and rather boring Bird. Both actors pccasopma;;u hit the hoops quite impressively. However, the best acting comes from the ensemble. Besides the already mentioned Deirdre O'Connell, three other excellent actors handily take on various characters who were part of Johnson's and Bird's personal and professional saga. Francois Battiste, veteran of another Kail directed play, Brokeology, is again excellent though I found his delivering sportscaster Bryant Gumble's lines in a high pitched voice weird,— more puzzling than funny, as obviously intended.
The play's main reason for being, the aura of big league basketball in a Broadway theater, is established even as you take your seat. The curtain flickers with the jerseys that are a major part of the profitable tie-in sales to products endorsed by star players that will undoubtedly be as important as ticket sales at the Longacre. Once that curtain rises, the narrative begins at the end, with Johnson's widely circulated retirement announcement. It then flashes back until it unsurprisingly brings us back to that beginning.
Set designer David Korins has provided locker rooms at either side of the stage as well as occasionally rolled out props. Drop-down baskets enable the occasionally live whiz-bang footwork. The on-stage action is heightened by Jeff Sugg's projections of actual historic footage, Howell Binkley bathes each scene in cinematic lighting and Paul Tazwell's costumes reflect the changing styles in warmups, sneakers and throughout the 80's and 90's era covered.
You don't have to understand the game and the identities and insider talk goes over your head, to appreciate the choreographic artistry of the game. The dramatic arc is essentially a set-up to establish how these two NBA greats, despite personality differences and the rivalry between them, developed an at first awkward but ultimately sweet bond. All the action is designed to clarify the comparisons between the way they dealt with fame, the media, their managers and teammates and what hitting those hoops meant to them. Given that Simonsson isn't exactly telling a new story — the 2010 HBO film Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals is now available as a $10 DVD at Amazon (Link here to the DVD ). Perhaps the optimistic open run would be more justified if the filmed highlights weren't overdone, and the live scenes so lacking in emotional zip.
Finally, the quote at the top of this review about athletes dying once like other people and a second time when "they hang it up" is something of a cheat, certainly for Johnson. After all he has more than fulfilled his first dream of becoming a successful business man, most recently as part of a syndicate that bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for two billion dollars.
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