With his winning smile, uncommon gift for both basketball and business, and life-affirming optimism, Earvin “Magic” Johnson is easy to admire.
Johnson’s nemesis-turned-friend, Larry Bird, is depicted in Broadway’s “Magic/Bird” as a terse, ferocious competitor who comes alive only on the basketball court. That creates an imbalance for the inventively staged but tepid docu-drama that features only a dollop of onstage dribbling and shooting.
The one-act comes from the team behind last season’s “Lombardi,” about the perfectionist football coach. Like that play, it’s scrupulously researched. And for someone who can’t tell Bill Russell from Bill Bradley, it does offer an informative slice of basketball and social history.
An offstage announcer at the outset introduces the six actors, initially wearing white warm-up suits, as if we were in an arena and they were the starting line-up of a game, which immediately engages us in a sports story.
Within seconds, there’s footage of a historic 1991 press conference with Johnson. Most of the highpoints of the legendary rivalry is shown in clips.
“Because of the um, the HIV virus I have attained,” said the actor onstage playing Johnson (Kevin Daniels), backed by the flickering image of the real Johnson, “I will have to retire from the Lakers, um, today.”
The story flashes back to 1979 and proceeds from college hoops to the pros. In clipped live scenes we see Johnson and Bird (Tug Coker) linked by a fierce work ethic and an obsession with one another’s latest triumph, Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bird with the Boston Celtics.
When the two stars are convinced in 1985 to make a commercial together for Converse, their friendship sparks over lunch in Bird’s hometown, French Lick, Indiana.
Eric Simonson’s play gets much of its energy from David Korins’s constantly re-configuring set and Jeff Sugg’s projections, including game footage and newspaper clippings on a scrim in front of the stage.
Daniels nicely evokes Johnson’s bonhomie while Coker plays Bird as if on Valium.
Francois Battiste gets laughs as Bryant Gumbel, up an octave or two, and Deirdre O’Connell is sympathetic as both Bird’s mother and wife.
“Magic/Bird” cries out for an epilogue, about how Johnson lives with HIV and thrives in business after basketball. Should this play have another life, it would benefit from having more Magic, less Bird, and greater distance from its subjects.
Tasteful to a fault, the play is unlikely to offend anyone, particularly the National Basketball Association or Johnson, both involved in producing. (Johnson is listed as an investor and cooperated with Simonson.)
At the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. Information: +1- 212-239-6200, http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: *1/2
‘Federer vs. Murray’
“Federer versus Murray” recalls another bygone sports era, when a tennis fan could refer to the Swiss master as “Roger Rex,” without having to explain away defeats to younger, less graceful guys named Rafael and Novak.
Gerda Stevenson’s 55-minute drama is also about parental grief, opium in the Afghan economy, American and British foreign policy and the personal toll of war and unemployment.
The well-intentioned, overstuffed exercise features two actors with heavy Scottish brogues (Stevenson and Dave Anderson). Ben Bryden plays saxophone solos during scene breaks.
It’s set primarily in a cramped living room with a television tuned to Wimbledon. Anderson rises above as the Federer-worshipping husband, charming in a beige cardigan with an RF insignia.
Through April 22 at 59 E. 59th Street. Information: +1-212- 753-5959; http://59e59.org. Rating: *
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Philip Boroff is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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