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New Phoenix gives 'That Championship Season' a great ride

In 2018, the year of "Time's Up" and #MeToo, the patriarchy is under renewed assault.

"Toxic masculinity," the current term of art for the defining feature of America's white, male ruling class, is once again being put on notice, even as it retains its stubborn grip on American politics and culture.

And although some may think of this movement as a recent ideological shift, it is really just the latest battle in a war launched decades ago. Jason Miller put the threatened hierarchy on zoo-like display in his excellent 1972 play "That Championship Season," and a new production of the show, perfectly suited to this moment, runs through April 7 in the New Phoenix Theatre.

The company's fine production features moving performances from Richard Lambert, Victor Morales, John Kreuzer, Greg Natale and Mark Donohue and crackles with emotion and energy. Like any great play, it will send you out of the theater with a head full of questions and doubts.

Director Kelli Bocock Natale has charted a journey of mounting tension here, creating a slight unease that crescendos into something much more violent as the plot unspools and its characters come unhinged.

A group of desperate men far past their prime are gathered to recall a championship-winning high school basketball season three decades earlier. They are walking, drinking embodiments of the patriarchy. Each one, as written by Miller, serves as a symbol of the deep corruption and bigotry that persist in circles of power, covered by masks of wholesome righteousness.

Across three swift acts, we watch the slow death of teenage dreams in the broken lives – lives built on lies – of these good ol'  boys.

George (Lambert), a former basketball star and mayor of this small Pennsylvania town, seethes with insecurity even as he makes increasingly brash pronouncements about his prospects in the next election mixed with anti-Semitic remarks about his opponent.

"I'm 49 years old and I used to have a 32-inch waist. I used to be the most popular boy in school," he says. But now? "I don't think I'm the man I'm supposed to be."

George finds his foil in former teammate Phil Romano (Morales, perfectly cast), who has made a fortune but finds only fleeting satisfaction through affairs with a string of women, one of them George's wife. They are joined by brothers James and Tom Daley (the gifted Kreuzer and Natale, in excellent comic form), one a self-professed mediocrity looking for his next step and the other a low-functioning alcoholic who seems to have given up on life.

These sad sacks meet in the living room of their former coach (Mark Donahue), who dispenses all manner of racist platitudes and cheap wisdom pilfered from the likes of Teddy Roosevelt. The action unfolds on a nicely appointed set by Chris Wilson –  red velvet armchair, a table strewn with bottles of Jameson and Rolling Rock, a stand bearing the 1952 state championship trophy and a gun rack for three loaded rifles.

Miller's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1973, goes far beyond a critique of nostalgia as a way of life, though it serves that function exceedingly well. It drives its point home a little too firmly with the ranging monologues of the coach, whose character could more believable if his dialogue were edited. It didn't help that Donahue's opening-night performance, while strong in spots, lacked the necessary command to fully inhabit the role.

Even so, down to its engagement with McCarthyism, the play is resonant today, when the protégé of McCarthy's protégé, the lawyer Roy Cohn, currently inhabits the White House.

As the coach tells his former players at one point: "We are the country, boys."

But this fine New Phoenix production prompts an important question: For how much longer?

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Theater Review

"That Championship Season"

3 stars

Jason Miller's award-winning drama runs through April 7 at New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 853-1334 or visit newphoenixtheatre.org.

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