A few moments into the new Broadway revival of "That Championship Season," the characters of James, a school principal in early 1970s Scranton, Pa., and Phil, a local businessman, bound onstage together, laughing.
There's an immediate, audible ripple of excitement through the audience, and it's not hard to see why: That joint entrance is a TV fan's dream, bringing us both Jack Bauer and Mr. Big, aka Kiefer Sutherland (in his Broadway debut) and Chris Noth.
You can forgive the audience a moment of stargazing. Because soon enough, this flashy cast _ which also includes Jason Patric, comedian Jim Gaffigan and the powerful Brian Cox _ quickly forms a smooth ensemble, sinking itself into the sobering world of Jason Miller's 1972 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play, a searing depiction of one drunken night and the ugliness it gradually unearths.
The "championship" in the title refers to the winning season of a high school basketball team, whose glorious final game remains a moment etched in the minds of both players and coach. These men can still narrate, move by move, the closing moments of their clutch victory: Ten seconds on the clock ... down by one point ... Yes!
It's two decades later, as the players meet for one of their annual reunions at Coach's house. They're in their 30s _ "heart attack season, boys!" as Coach chirps cheerfully. Three of them are reunion regulars. A fourth has been missing for a few, but is back. Another star player has long been absent, and we don't know why.
The evening begins with hugs, pats on the back, general merriment. Of course, it will all go sour as the night progresses, as drinks are refilled, the Schlitz cans empty, business suits dishevel, grievances are aired, secrets emerge, frustration and resentment reach a boiling point.
Controlling the evening like a conductor is Coach, bombastic, foul-mouthed and bigoted (in a memorable, appropriately larger-than-life performance by the Scottish-born Cox, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran), a man who bemoans the death of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, one of his heroes. Ailing badly, the man nonetheless holds his former players in his thrall as if they never grew up and took off those uniforms.
There's George, the town mayor, facing re-election and in need of funds to beat back a challenger who looks like Robert Goulet and may have a relative, the men discover gleefully, who was a Communist. (He's also Jewish, which brings out George's anti-Semitic views.) There's James, his frustrated campaign manager and the junior high principal, who harbors political ambitions of his own.
There's Phil, a wealthy businessman who has trouble keeping his pants zipped and bends the rules of both business and friendship. And there's Tom, James' brother, a drifter and an alcoholic who gets progressively smashed, but not too much to point out Coach's hypocrisy with a bombshell later on.
Effective as the quietly seething Tom, Patric comes to the play with a special connection: his father was playwright Miller, who died in 2001.
Gaffigan, perhaps the least known of this star-studded bunch, is compelling in a showy role as the buffoonish but angry and bigoted mayor. "The only thing a Jew changes more than his politics is his name," he sneers of his opponent.
Noth, best known for TV roles like Mr. Big in "Sex and the City" and Detective Logan in "Law & Order," displays a comfortable and engaging stage presence, coming across as charismatic and oily at the same time as Phil, whose allegiance in the mayoral campaign is crucial.
As James, Sutherland admirably plays against type in an unshowy role as a mousy, unappreciated man _ he's even lost his teeth _ who aspires to more in life. Far from the imposing Jack Bauer, who intimidated and outwitted countless bad guys on "24," James is small and weak, frustrated and angry. "I am a talented man being swallowed up by anonymity!" he rails. It's rather a shock to see him sink into a couch toward the end, resigned and looking even smaller.
Though the play may disturb some with its stark expressions of racism and anti-Semitism, the action is absorbing and well-paced, directed with an expert hand by Gregory Mosher.
At the curtain call of a recent preview, one of the cast members cracked a joke, and the rest of the actors broke up laughing. They left the stage arm-in-arm, still guffawing.
Such easy camaraderie would seem hard to fake, and it serves the cast well. "That Championship Season" has been revived to excellent effect by a talented, committed ensemble of actors.