SCOTT SIMON, host:
Four old teammates reunite for a night with their beloved coach.
Unidentified Man: My boys standing around me again. A toast to the 1952 Pennsylvania state high school basketball champions.
(Soundbite of glass clinking)
SIMON: The boys, now pushing 40, find that time and life have tarnished their victories. "That Championship Season" is a piece of theatrical history. Jason Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for the play in 1973 - same year he was nominated for an Oscar, for his role as a priest who disses the devil in "The Exorcist." Almost 40 years later, director Gregory Mosher has revived the play with a star-stocked cast, including Kiefer Sutherland, fresh from saving the world again and again on "24;" Mr. Big, Chris Noth; Brian Cox, famous for his King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare; Jim Gaffigan, the stand-up comic; and Jason Patric, the actor whose the son of the playwright.
We interviewed Kiefer Sutherland, Brian Cox and Jason Patric on Broadway this week, between rehearsals.
Thank you all very much for being with us.
Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND (Actor): Thank you very, very much for having us.
Mr. JASON PATRIC (Actor): Nice to be here.
Mr. BRIAN COX (Actor): Yeah, it's great to be here.
SIMON: And Mr. Patric, let me turn to you first. Can you help us understand what this play meant in your life?
Mr. PATRIC: You know, it just changed our lives. Took us out of poverty and took my - my father was delivering welfare checks in Harlem at the time, I think. And then he wrote the play. And we moved out of our Queens apartment, and then he won all these awards. And then truth, within a year he was also gone from the house. So it...
SIMON: From your family, you and your mother?
Mr. PATRIC: Yeah. So it changed our lives and then changed it again. And it has had its own - sort of adjectives connected to it for the last 30 years of my life. And I like that it is now anew and it's, you know, just as a wonderful piece of material that is brand-new to me, with all these other men that are in it.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: You told me that great story that the incentive, or the impetus, to write the play to begin with was that he looked out the window, and saw Jason playing in a playground that was completely covered in shattered glass. And he said, I've got to get my kids out of here. And he, literally, went upstairs and started typing.
Mr. PATRIC: Yeah, writing Hamrick(ph)...
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Yeah.
Mr. PATRIC: Yeah, that day, yeah. With just a title in his mind.
SIMON: I guess I hadn't fully realized until now that, so, the play was a big success but it also meant within a year your father was gone. Does that...
Mr. PATRIC: Yeah, pretty much, yeah.
SIMON: That's got to condition how you feel about the play.
Mr. PATRIC: I guess, yeah. And also, it became an albatross that he could never, you know, get out from and, you know, never really wrote another play.
SIMON: We maybe need to explain that there was a time right after your father won the, I guess, the Pulitzer Prize and - probably wasn't a hotter name in the business.
Mr. PATRIC: Right.
SIMON: And then...
Mr. PATRIC: Still a kid from a coal-mining town, and had no idea what Hollywood was and all the pain. Never been in a movie before, and never had a play on Broadway. It was the fame and all that; it was a pressure situation he was not equipped for. I don't know if anyone really is but whatever his talent that touched the muse, that just came from somewhere else. But it didn't, as I said, make him able to go through the waters of a shark-infested Hollywood.
SIMON: Mr. Sutherland, let me turn to you. After being on "24" for how many years?
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Nine years, eight seasons, with a writer's strike in the middle.
SIMON: It'll be a revelation for people to see you cower and shiver on stage -and lose your teeth.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: And lose my teeth, one hopes. Yeah, I get slapped around a bit.
SIMON: Was that part of the attraction of the role?
Mr. SUTHERLAND: You know, it was very funny. My attraction was to the play. When Jason said, I want you to read this; I'm thinking of maybe doing it, and I had previously asked him - 'cause I think Jason has made some really courageous choices during his career, and they certainly have always been from the standpoint of - at least I perceive - as great integrity.
And so after doing "24" for as long as I have and felt - kind of really out of any other options, I talked to Jason about what he thought, and what would you think that I should do; what do you think is interesting? We had talked about the theater, and I know Jason had done some work here in New York; I never have before.
SIMON: You were on the Toronto stage, though.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Toronto, yeah, yeah, and a lot in Canada. Just never here in New York. And so we talked about that and then a few months later, Jason had sent me the play and said, I think I want to do it. And I read the play and said, I'm in. And then I said, who's playing what?
SIMON: Mr. Cox, let me turn to you. One of the great actors, great British actors of his generation.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Here, here.
Mr. COX: Thank you.
SIMON: Did someone have to show you how to hold a basketball?
Mr. COX: Every ball mentionable.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COX: I am one of the most unsporting people I've ever met in my life. I hate sports. I actually hate sports. I mean, this is one of the...
SIMON: I mean, you certainly would after this play, I would think.
Mr. COX: Well, yeah. That had nothing to do with this play, but I've never been sports inclined. I had horrors of it when I was a child. You know, I was expected to play what we call football, and you call something - soccer, I believe. I was expected to play that because my family played it. My cousin was an international soccer player.
My grandfather founded the Irish Harp, which was a famous amateur football team in my hometown in Scotland. So it was in my blood, but I absolutely loathed it. It was just misery for me.
SIMON: In some ways, the fact that you weren't a sports fan and maybe never modeled yourself that way, did that help you create the coach?
Mr. COX: Well, it probably did. I mean, it saw it in the iconic - I mean, it is an iconic role. It is Falstaff; it is Lear; it is - I mean, it's very demanding. I mean, I've played Lear. I've played Titus Andronicus, and Titus Andronicus is probably the hardest part you can play in the Shakespeare calendar. This comes pretty close, simply in terms of the positive energy that he has to kind of exert throughout the whole evening, corralling these amazing individuals, these four amazing individuals. And they really are four amazing performances. And it's a privilege to be on stage with them.
(Soundbite of play, "That Championship Season")
Mr. COX: (as Coach) You've been sneering at us all night, laughing in our faces.
Mr. PATRIC: (as Tom Daley) Don't start on me. I'm not here. I'm in (unintelligible).
Mr. COX (as Coach): You're finished, useless - and you had talent. You quit on everyone who needed you.
Mr. PATRIC: (as Tom Daley) Stop lying to us. Stop telling us how good we were.
Mr. COX (as Coach) We never had a losing season, and we're not starting now.
Mr. PATRIC: (as Tom Daley) That's not what Martin said.
Mr. COX (as Coach): What?
SIMON: We're speaking with Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric and Brian Cox about the revival they're in on Broadway now of Jason Miller's play, "That Championship Season."
How do you play characters who've known each other for 20 years and in a sense, you know all each other's old stories, you can probably finish each other's sentences. How do you fall into that kind of...
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Probably the only reason I was brought in. We've known each other 25.
Mr. PATRIC: Yeah, long time. I think you have to spend time with the people. And we've spent a great deal of time together, and not just in rehearsals. We intentionally, during rehearsals now, go out afterwards three, four nights a week just to get those rhythms and understanding. But when in doubt, you just follow the play. And that is what's great about having four other guys standing there.
Because look, on any team, LeBron James doesn't necessarily win the games. Sometimes it's someone else who's having a really good moment. And when you find yourself a little lost or a foothold or something, I can ground myself in any of these four other guys.
SIMON: Mr. Cox, are there some similarities that you observe from your special perspective, between a successful cast and a hit show, and a championship high school basketball team?
Mr. COX: Oh, yes. I think there's clearly the whole thing of motivation and the success of the venture. These are the questions, of course, that are in the play. You know, Teddy Roosevelt is a big influence on the play because his kind of demands that he made and said, you know...
SIMON: The coach has a picture, a huge picture of Theodore Roosevelt.
Mr. COX: Yeah, and you know, and never take less than success. And that ethic, which is a very great ethic but can become a misused ethic - and it's the ethic that's questioned throughout the play. It's about really understanding what goes on inside people, and how people live together, and how they choose to live together.
And also the struggling male as well, you know, the struggling American male, who's been struggling for a very, very, very long time.
SIMON: Is it also, as been observed over the years, a play about fathers and sons?
Mr. COX: Absolutely. Jason will tell you about that, but very much so.
Mr. COX: I have a photograph of my father, actually. I brought in a photograph. I have a photograph of me and my father, which I brought in, when I was 4. And my dad sits on a bike and he's making (unintelligible). It's my kind of image for the play.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: But it's an amazing expression about fathers and sons because it goes from everything from the beautiful, to being able to - as the coach does to all four of these boys - is, to be able to lift them up and feel the best about themselves. But it's also, it's a study on how racism is handed down from generation to generation, and a lot of the things that have permeated our culture that we are ashamed of.
And so what I thought was so amazing about what Jason Miller did was, he took - really - the positive and the negatives, and managed to express them through these five characters. For me, I have a much greater understanding how and why certain things have not changed, how we've managed to not let certain things go.
SIMON: I've got to try and draw you out on that a little bit, Mr. Patric, fathers and sons. Can you ever read this just as a play?
Mr. PATRIC: Yes. I mean, and that's been the magical thing.
SIMON: Well, you're a professional.
Mr. PATRIC: Well, a lot of people wouldn't think I'm that professional.
Mr. COX: He is, isn't he?
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Yes, he is.
Mr. COX: He's become very professional.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Yes, he has.
Mr. PATRIC: I, uh - through hearing it is actually - through playing it, it's become a play as opposed to reading it and - 'cause I've never seen it. I've only - I've seen it now as - of men within it.
SIMON: You never saw any of like, the film versions?
Mr. PATRIC: Yeah, the film versions - but they're not the play.
Mr. PATRIC: You know, it's meant to be a play. People open up film versions. The whole point is, this takes place in one room. They can't escape the coach's house. They go out onto porches, and they come back in. The coach's house is metaphorical for their past ,who they can't escape. The minute you put it into a movie and you do that dialogue in a supermarket aisle, you've destroyed what was tightly wound in its own, specific lyricism.
So you know, reading it in the past, I hear my father's voice in it. I also hear the disrepair that the play ended up in. I could also hear him doing movies or living, you know, living through that piece in a bad way. So now, it is a new play to me.
SIMON: This play comes from a time in the early '70s when - I think it's fair to say - a lot of Americans were questioning what they thought of the American dream, whether it's really the way we've wanted to live. Does that theme stand up now, too?
Mr. SUTHERLAND: I think it's as relevant today as the day he wrote it, yeah.
Mr. COX: Well, we can say that as a Canadian and as a Scot. What does the American think?
Mr. PATRIC: Well, the American thinks that frankly, the cultural cognizenti hasn't even caught up with this play yet. I mean, if you really think about it, 1972, what's in this play? Aside from the universal themes of faith and father-son and love relationships, we're talking about a play that talks about abortion, a defeated army, ecology, materialism - vast materialism.
Plays in the 1972 season weren't talking about materialism. They were celebrating them in a goofy, commercial way. But Phil's character talks in a very, you know, honest...
SIMON: Phil Romano, played by Chris Noth.
Mr. PATRIC: Chris Noth, and wonderful performance. He needs two of everything. Well, that's what the culture tells us we need now. Once again, this guy from the coal-mining town, my dad's head could see and smell that coming - and saying in a brutally coarse language that a playwright could have written today.
Mr. COX: That's the astonishing thing about the play. That's really what makes it a great play. It is Shakespearean in that way.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Nothing changes but the date.
SIMON: Brian Cox, Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland are all starring in "That Championship Season." Thanks so much.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Thanks so much for having us.
Mr. PATRIC: Thanks for coming.
Mr. COX: Thank you so much.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: And "That Championship Season" opens tomorrow night at the Bernard Jacobs Theater on Broadway.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.