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A CurtainUp Review

Most people die once/ Athletes —ball players, they die twice. Once when they, you know, die, and once when they hang it up — Shelly
Kevin Daniels (Earvin "Magic" Johnson), Deirdre O’Connell, Tug Coker(Bird)
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Full disclosure, I'm not a basketball fan. I tend to skim if not skip the sports news when I read the paper. My main interest in the TV sports news is whether a game is going to delay, or worse, preempt a favorite dramatic show. That said, the name "Magic" Johnson does more than just ring a bell. I remember when he retired from major league basketball because became infected with HIV.

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's 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.

Magic/Bird has now officially opened at the Logacre Theaterfor 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 friendship story? 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 authentic stage pictures 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 (translation = box office draws): In the title roles we have the big brawny Kevin Daniels as the limelight friendly Johnson and the skyscraper tall Tug Corker as the media shunning and rather boring Bird. Both actors 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, 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 team mates 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.

Magic/Bird by Eric Simonson
Directed by Thomas Kail Cast: Kevin Daniels (Earvin "Magic" Johnson),, Tug Coker(Bird) Deirdre O’Connell(Dinah Bird/Patricia Moore/Shelly Haley/Georgia Bird), Peter Scolari (Pat Riley/Red Auerbach/ Jerry Buss/Tom/Bob Woolf), Robert Manning, Jr. ( Frank/Michael/Cooper/Jeff), Francois Battiste (Willy/Bryant Gumbel/Jon Lennox, Byron Scott/ Ron Baxter)
Sets: David Korins
Lighting: Howell Binkley
Costumes: Paul Tazewell
Sound: Nevin Steinberg
Media Design: Jeff Suggs
Hair/Wig Design: Charles G. Lapointe
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager: J. Philip Bassett
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission Longacre Theater,220 West 48th Street (212) 239-6200
From 3/21/12; opening 4/11/12; open-ended-- then changed to 5/10/12 closing
Tues. @7pm, Wednesday - Saturday @8pm, Wednesday and Saturday @2pm, Sunday @3pm
Tickets$31.50 to $126.50 Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/07/12 press preview
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