Once more into the nostalgic sports bio-play breach, dear friend, once more. Following up his portrayal of legendary coach Vincent Lombardi, playwright Eric Simonson digs back into the annals of epic NBA rivalries to lend his hand to the story of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the bluntly titled Magic/Bird. This play offers about what you would expect of it, provided you're not looking for actual athletic action on the stage or any deep, meaningful insight about the two title figures.
The illusion of seeing Larry Bird is only occasionally accomplished by actor Tug Cocker and left completely to the generosity of the audience's suspension of disbelief with Kevin Daniels's attempt at Earvin "Magic" Johnson. There are no Frost/Nixon moments when you're left wondering where Frank Langella went and when Richard Nixon showed up, no such magical instances of theatrical transformation, but both Cocker and Daniels are likeable and make pleasant company for the ninety intermission-less minutes that the play requires
Cocker seems to have begun his journey of getting underneath Bird's skin but stopped before he got too deep. Resting on a stoic Midwest mentality and backbreaking work ethic, he fails to take it any further yet manages to stir these few ingredients into a palatable performance. Daniels struggles more, trying to pull out momentary, emotional truth with the limited resources he's given in a relatively shallow script about an undoubtedly more complicated couple of individuals. All other actors in the play portray a collage of characters to fill in the necessary background and sounding boards. Peter Scolari makes some strong choices and manages some clearly distinguishable characters, which is key as a few virtually enter as the other exits. Deirdre O'Connell is strongest when wearing her blue collar as a bartender in Boston and Bird's mother; Francois Battiste gets hung up in gimmicks but is entertaining enough; and Robert Manning Jr. blends into the background as a variety of teammates and official figures.
The production's weakest link is its directing, with Simonson's script coming in a not-too-distant second. Director Thomas Kail appears to have had no inspiration to offer this story, nor ingenuity on how to bring it to life. Kail drops the ball by shying away from utilizing any actual athletic prowess on the stage and compounds the matter by allowing projections to supplement this lack. The main reason why anyone cares or ever cared about Johnson or Bird is due to the physical abilities they possessed on the court; lacking any such displays on the stage robs the play of any significance it might have. Simonson's script only supports this point as he fails to unearth any profundity from the central relationship and instead opts for a more verbatim telling that avoids any complex emotions or epiphanies, trotting down the "they're rivals but ah shucks they're friends anyway" path. David Korins distracts somewhat from these deficiencies with a functional and at times exciting set design as Jeff Sugg over-saturates the stage with projections that often remind the audience of the epic figures and moments that they're not seeing in person.
For someone looking to kick back, dip in some basketball nostalgia and watch a surface recap of the story of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, this play should prove very satisfying. It hits on the key moments and touches on the importance of competition in bringing out the best between competitors. Those looking for insight, challenge or complexity, should abandon all hope of finding it in Magic/Bird but, then again, if you're going for anything other than light entertainment, then you may be a bit misguided. That's what Shakespeare's for. - C. Jefferson Thom
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.