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Hoop Dreaming


January 24, 2007

Basketball as a metaphor for life almost works on stage

Sports and theater have a great deal in common: They're both grounded in conflict and the struggle to achieve a goal, involve participants and spectators in a ritualistic event, and are geared toward catharsis. Yet despite a rich shared history and gung-ho essays written in support of the relationship by such 20th-century theater luminaries as Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht, the cinema has far outpaced the stage as a natural place for stories about athletic prowess. Movies about sports have become so ubiquitous (Talladega Nights, Invincible, Rocky Balboa, and Nacho Libre are just some of the titles released in 2006) that the Tribeca Film Festival will debut, in late April, a festival dedicated to the genre. Conversely, stage plays on the subject are roughly as common as a bar full of musical theater actors on Super Bowl Sunday.

It's true that there may not be many people out there with season tickets to their local repertory theater and their local baseball team (San Francisco actor and Giants devotee Danny Wolohan stands out as a notable exception). It's also a fact that few theater companies are big or rich enough to contemplate putting full-on football matches or swim meets on stage. Still, the theater might in some ways be a better medium for sports-themed dramas than film.

Instead of giving us, as Hollywood so often does, predictable stories in which an athlete's struggle to overcome his drinking/gambling/womanizing problem mirrors his fight for supremacy on the football/baseball/hockey field, the few works for the stage I can think of that constitute the "genre" use metaphor much more creatively. Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, for instance, posits baseball as a symbol of this country's multicultural tensions and obsession with celebrity culture. As the two athletes in Italian playwright Eduardo Erba's play Marathon pound the pavement in preparation for running 26.2 miles in New York, they sprint past such allegorical landmarks as friendship, sex, God, and death. Rebecca Gilman's The Sweetest Swing in Baseball draws themes of commerce and art out of its surreal take on slugger Darryl Strawberry. And Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton explore Irish politics through the prism of feuding Catholic and Protestant soccer teams in The Beautiful Game.

It would give me great pleasure to add Deb Margolin's basketball-themed play Three Seconds in the Key to my diminutive list of metaphorically astute, contemporary sports dramas. But in spite of the dynamic, kinetic energy of director Leigh Fondakowski's engrossing production for S.F. Playhouse, Margolin's text might be better relegated to the bench.

Like many other works in the sports play canon, Three Seconds is as much about a physical pursuit as it is about life. Based on Margolin's own struggle against cancer, it explores how a middle-aged single mother overcomes Hodgkin's disease with a little help from her 8-year-old son's favorite basketball team, the New York Knicks. Over the course of one long two-hour act, realities nudge each other as the woman shuffles in her pajamas between her exhausted existence with her son (who becomes increasingly exasperated by his mother's disease) and a hallucinogenic, TV-inspired fantasy world of conversations and card games with the Knicks' troubled star player.

Margolin's text offers fleeting moments of beauty. The language, like the play's heroine, bounces between the drab reality of lymph nodes, supermarkets, and Gatorade commercials and a surreal landscape in which leaves have ghosts and the air, pores. Three Seconds is also, at times, disarmingly funny. Many of the play's comedic passages deliver a kick: The mother's hilarious attempt to endear her black Knicks player friend to the Yiddish language has a sly racist slant; meanwhile, her son wishes his mother could have Lou Gehrig's disease rather than Hodgkin's, because unlike Hodgkin (a scientist), at least Gehrig was an athlete.

Unfortunately, after the lead character's mesmerizing opening monologue about going to the supermarket high on pot, Margolin's grip on her narrative slips. A dope-induced haze settles over the play like snow over a hockey rink. Some of the issues are plot-related; for example, the woman's relationship with the Knicks player seems to appear out of nowhere, and we never really understand why he comes to the woman's aid, nor what makes him so often return to her. Religious and racial themes pop up here and there and feel similarly underdeveloped: Conversations between the woman and the Knicks player about the differences between blacks and Jews seem like little more than excuses to create dramatic tension, and intermittent prayer meeting scenes, in which the basketball players read and discuss biblical psalms, feel particularly random.

Most disappointing is the drama's handling of what should be its most resonant theme: the suspension of time. The play takes its name from the maximum amount of time a basketball player on the offense can remain under the opposition's hoop. Margolin hints at the link between the three-second "eternity" of a player waiting to shoot and the six-month "eternity" of a convalescing cancer patient, but doesn't explore the metaphor to its fullest. The idea stalls, leaving us with the sensation that we could be watching a play about any sport. Barring the autobiographical facts that underpin the play, basketball feels almost like an arbitrary choice.

Thanks to Fondakowski (a director best known for large-scale devised ensemble pieces such as The Laramie Project and The People's Temple) and the slam-dunk cast, this production allows us to forget — almost — the rambling incoherence of Margolin's text. From Bill English's black-box-defying set (which includes part of a basketball court, complete with hoop, wooden sprung floor, and markings) to the cast's choreographic precision (which allows five hulking blokes bouncing a ball around in Knicks gear, sometimes at full speed and sometimes in slow motion, to look as if they're dancing Swan Lake), the production imbues Margolin's elusive theme of warped time with a definite shape.

In his 1935 essay "An Affective Athleticism," Artaud argued that actors should become "athletes of the heart" by finding an emotional response to the world equivalent to an athlete's physical response. To watch Amy Resnick's performance in Three Seconds' central role is to understand the relationship between theater and sports. Whether curled up like a fetus on the couch idolizing the players on TV, sending her son off to bed with a casual gesture that looks like she's plopping a ball into a hoop rather than waving goodbye, or pulling her slender frame to its full height to lock horns with a towering Knicks player, Resnick's very physicality is a metaphor for life. She got game.

It's not often that a cast, director, and crew can take a third-league drama and turn it into a champion. With the strength of S.F. Playhouse behind it, Three Seconds perhaps deserves a place in the modern sports play canon after all. In the end, this production contains a powerful message for sports and life: It's possible to overcome bad odds with teamwork.



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