a theatre, film & pop culture review
The writing-directing team that brought us last year’s football favorite Lombardi offer up another sports bio-drama, this time of the basketball variety. Magic/Bird may not have the satisfying heft of the meat-and-potatoes family drama that Lombardi did, but thankfully it has a director with a musicality of movement that keeps things bouncing along both on and off-court.
Following the unlikely bond between the L.A. Lakers’s gregarious Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the Boston Celtics’s aloof Larry Bird, Magic/Bird touches on the super-rivalry between the two b-ball greats in the ’80s. We look on as the Lakers and Celtics duel over the championship title, with each team winning every other year, while also tossing the MVP title back and forth between the two key players. Magic and Bird officially meet during the filming of a Nike commercial (naturally), and that was that — the two become fast friends for life.
Despite the inherent drama of athletic competition and the Odd Couple humor of the Bird and Magic pairing, Eric Simonson’s play keeps it (s)light: the vertically blessed Kevin Daniels (Magic) and Tug Coker (Bird) give likable performances, but if it wasn’t for Jeff Sugg’s dazzling videos of the real Magic and Bird that multiply and diverge, creating an irising effect of LED displays, we might forget that, yeah, these are real men with depths of character and history that we may never be privy to. Because when things get a little heavy in Magic/Bird — Magic becomes HIV+ when the world had no idea what that really meant — the playwright glosses over that to quickly get back to the buddy comedy trope. We’re not really given the opportunity to question Magic’s marriage or his promiscuity, we never get beyond the wall that the tight-lipped Bird carefully built around his personal life, and we don’t even really witness an intense rivalry. Maybe the play doesn’t dig too deep because the source material just isn’t that deep. Maybe, but I doubt it: the play could use more Magic/Bird and a little less NBA stats.
Thankfully, there’s director Thomas Kail (who also helmed Lombardi), who gives the lightly-sketched fare a nice breeziness of movement and tone that helps us forget that basketball is better filmed than staged. Making good use of David Korins’s raised basketball-court stage and aided by the impressive bouncy-slick sound design by Nevin Steinberg (Acme Sound Partners, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), Kail moves his key players on and around the stage as though choreographing a musical number, and not a basketball play. It works admirably well (it should — he directed In the Heights), and while things keep moving at a swift and satisfying pace, he also manages some fine performances from the supporting cast: most notably, Deirdre O’Connell (Circle Mirror Transformation) as Bird’s frank and funny stat-spouting mom.
Many theatre folks may not appreciate the topic of this sports show and others may find it a bit surface-y, but the enthusiastic house proves there’s certainly an audience out there, just as there was for Lombardi before it. Magic/Bird is the show you can easily bring that culturally-adverse relative to; I’m confident your dad will love it.