By ERIC GRODE
Brian Cox hates sports.
“I’m completely antithetical to them,” says the burly Scottish actor, who has assembled a rogues’ gallery of memorable men on stage, film, and television. “I see that they’re pivotal to a culture, but I’ve never understood that whole macho, sublimated-warrior thing.”
Cox’s resume has more than its share of warriors on it, both ancient (an acclaimed Titus Andronicus for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Agamemnon in the film Troy and modern-day (villainous military men in X2 and the Bourne films, to say nothing of an Emmy-winning turn as Herman Göring ). Now the 64-year-old, last seen on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll in 2007, is lacing up to show just how cutthroat the sublimated version can be.
In the new revival of That Championship Season, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 play by Jason Miller, Cox plays a retired high school basketball coach in small-town Pennsylvania who clings to the belief that he can buoy the spirits of a fractious quartet of middle-aged men twenty years after coaching them to greatness.
Director Gregory Mosher has assembled a group of familiar faces as the coach’s former pupils: longtime TV stars Kiefer Sutherland and Chris Noth, plus film actor Jason Patric (who is also Miller’s son) and stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan. But Cox says he came first: “Greg was keen to get the Coach cast before anyone else.”
Once the other roles had been cast (Liev Schreiber was rumored for Gaffigan’s role at one point), Mosher brought in the former Knick great Bill Bradley to talk about the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team. The significance of his basketball days fascinated Cox. “I mean, here’s a guy who was a Rhodes scholar, who was in the Senate, who ran for president,” he says. “And he says his greatest moments were as an athlete. That was remarkable to me.” Bradley also told the cast about an old high school teammate whose entire life was clouded by a single dropped pass.
That sense of school-age notoriety as a double-edged sword hangs with devastating force over each character in That Championship Season. Not even the Coach, who convenes reunions every year and constantly rallies his “boys” in an attempt to counteract their resentments and regrets, is immune from the corrosive effects of nostalgia. “This play is very much about the loss of innocence,” says Cox, who believes it stands along Death of a Salesman and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as one of the great American works.
It was one of the first plays to transfer from the Public Theatre to Broadway, where it joined such works as Hair and David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones. As with those shows, the Vietnam War looms as a specter, albeit more tangentially in the case of Miller’s play. The Coach tells his former pupils that “there is no such thing as second place,” a statement that takes on sobering resonance in the context of Vietnam, a war that America was on the verge of losing.
Another haunting presence is that of Jason Miller, who in the space of about a year achieved enormous notoriety for this play as well as for his performance as Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist. He soon returned to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where, by many accounts, alcohol played a large role in his death at the age of 62. “The terrible thing about the play,” Cox says, “is its prophetic nature as far as Jason’s life.” Cox finds great import in an exchange where Tom Daley (Patric), an alcoholic drifter, begins a slurred “Bless me Father for I …” The Coach interrupts him to say, “… Need to lose.” Almost 40 years after those lines were written, Cox says, “That’s the tragedy of the play and of the playwright as well.”
In the past, Cox has spoken with some degree of scorn about the theatre world, but time in America---he now lives in New York with his wife and two school-age sons---has softened him a bit on this score. “I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the theatre because it’s such a feudal institution. It makes you good, and I grew up [in London] in a theatre culture, but it used to irritate me because it’s so hierarchical.
“That’s why I really like doing theatre in New York,” he continues. “People here come because they really want to come to the theatre.”
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.