From the NBA to Broadway

The relationship between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird goes back over three decades.  It is, I am told, a touching story of friendship and rivalry, though one would never know that from Eric Simonson’s new play, Magic/Bird, an inexplicable, excruciating disaster of a production.

Before the action begins, we watch forty-nine small images of the players projected onto a scrim, which eventually fade out so that an announcer can bellow, “Aaaand now, please welcome your cast of Magic/Bird!”  Each actor is introduced by name, awkwardly taking the center of the stage while smiling at his or her “teammates.”  In the following thirty minutes, the stage will spin, hoops will swing up and down from the ceiling, and notable television moments will be played on a giant screen; meanwhile, the performers eek out corny caricatures of their real-life counterparts—Francois Battiste seems particularly proud of his squeaky, one-note Bryant Gumbel.  All of which is a half-assed attempt to make up for lousy writing with glittery high-budget theatrical tricks and unimaginative impressions.  It doesn’t work.

This alone—a shallow script matched by a shallow production—would be enough to dismiss Magic/Bird as an ill-conceived failure, and yet playwright Mr. Simonson reaches somewhat higher than gimmicky docudrama.  For example, he occasionally introduces racial tension into the mix but fails to provide any context, commentary, or insight.  Both Magic and Bird don’t seem particularly interested in the issue and the occasional asides about racism feel like forced, meaningless exercises.  One Lakers fan yells in a bar, “All of Boston is racist!” only later to admit that Larry Bird is a great player—as if this suggests some kind of closure or racial harmony.  Mr. Simonson also tries to reflect on the mythical nature of celebrity, having one commentator compare the two to the twin brothers Castor and Pollux who were transformed into the constellation Gemini.  In summation he muses, “Magic and Bird, man, for a while I thought they’d go on forever.”  It’s the kind of writing we’d expect from a bright middle schooler.

And the relationship between Magic and Bird, ostensibly the subject of the play (cf. the title), is never penetrated beyond surface similarities and differences. Magic is Black and grew up in Lansing, Bird is white and from French Lick, Indiana.  One is a fast-talking, amiable party boy, the other a quiet, monosyllabic homebody.  In a scene that moves as a snail’s pace, the two swap folksy wisdom and discover that they both had respectable, hard-working fathers.  Surely there must be more nuggets in this relationship than racial difference and similar humble beginnings, but Mr. Simonson never concerns himself with paying close attention to their private lives.  Instead, he turns to the fact that they made a silly commercial together.

The two leads also prove uninspiring.  Tug Coker (Bird) lurches around the stage, delivering his lines in a monotone that becomes immediately tiresome.  Though Kevin Daniels (Magic) is slightly more endearing, he never even brushes the charm of the basketball player.  In fact, the only real actor to make an appearance is Jack Nicholson, who shows up for a half-second in some archive footage of a Lakers/Celtics game.  His Cheshire Cat grin, usually so infectious, only acts as a reminder of how depressing this string of fourth-rate actors is.  Still, it’s not as if they have much to work with.  These characters have the substantiality of rubbing alcohol—blow on them and they will evaporate.

To call Magic/Bird a terrible play is not entirely correct.  That would presuppose that it is a play.  It is not.  It is a series of cheap imitations and tedious sports recaps that somehow landed on the Longacre stage.  This is a theater that has housed Lee J. Cobb, F. Murray Abraham, and Mark Rylance, one that has produced plays by Odets and Ionesco and Albee.  Magic/Bird is a stain on its contribution to the arts.  To all those responsible: shame on you.

Magic/Bird runs through May 12th at the Longacre Theatre.  220 W. 48th Street  New York, NY.

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