Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Olney Theater opened its 25th season Tuesday night with "That Championship Season," the champion play of the last decade if theatrical prizes mean anything at all.
As would be expected of such a representative '70s champion, the title is ironic. These basketball players gathered in their coach's home 20 years after winning the Pennsylvania high school championship are not winners at all. They are emotional and moral wrecks.
Sadly enough, the subsquent writing career of Jason Miller has been hardly more distinguished than the aborted basketball careers of his characters. however, he has made a spotty splash as an acto - he actor - he acted at Olney in "The Visit" and "Pull-man Car Hiawatha" and more recently he helped wipe out the devil in Georgetown, starring in "The Exorcist."
The devils in "That Championship Season" cannot be chanted away in an exorcism, though the charcters certainly try hard enough when they sing the old school song at the end of the play. But the sins here are overwhelming. They're also quite entertaining - this play evokes the agony of victory and the thrill of defeat in a relentlessly crowd-pleasing manner, and the crowd is pleased.
See this friend betray that one! Watch this deception come tumbling down! And most important, observe how it all fits the national mood of the early '70s, how all the depressing connections between the private and public ethos are laid out like tombstones in a cemetery.
James Waring's production is wonderfully extroverted. The play is surprisingly funny. David Snell gets most of the laughs, as the lone cynic in the crowd, and he threads his needles with tender loving care. HErbert Voland's roly-poly coach tenderly hugs his trophy as if it were a wand whipping up the pathos.
The assertive accessibility of the Olney production works best in the first act, quickly bouncing the expository balls into their proper hoops. The more reflective moments later in the play are not quite as effective, and Robert Murch, stuck in the role of the most transparently hypocritical character, doesn't know how to make the guy seem human.
Olney seems very human, however, as it enters its 25th yuar. Dear Jason Miller, championship teams don't necessarily fade away - look at your old home court out in Olney.