It may be hard to remember now, in our round-the-clock ESPN highlight-reel era of Kobe and LeBron, but there was a time back in the late '70s when the NBA was in trouble. Deep trouble. Then, like a razzle-dazzle passion play pitting East vs. West and black vs. white, two players emerged who would resurrect the game: the L.A. Lakers' Magic Johnson and the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird. Johnson was the motor-mouthed hardcourt wizard with the thousand-watt smile who made a very difficult game look easy he brought ''showtime'' to a city that lived for flash. Bird was the ''hick from French Lick,'' a gawky white guy from rural Indiana with a tireless work ethic and an inability to construct a sound bite if his life depended on it. He spoke with his jump shot. In the '80s, they were the greatest show on earth.
Now, their on-the-court rivalry (known to all) and their off-the-court friendship (known to fewer) is the subject of the new Broadway play Magic/Bird. As strange as it may seem for a largely action-free sports drama to be adapted for the stage, Magic/Bird was in some ways inevitable. After all, Lombardi, a drama about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, ran for seven months in 2010-11. If Magic/Bird clicks, expect Derek Jeter: The Musical to follow soon.
Let's start with the good news: Kevin Daniels is excellent as Johnson. He nails the Lakers star's drive, competitiveness, cockiness, and weakness for the glitz of Tinseltown the orange trees, the celebrities, the Playboy mansion. Tug Coker, as Bird, matches his every feint and crossover dribble in the tougher role of Bird, who was more of an enigma, less articulate, and rarely revealed what made him tick besides his will to perfection. Peter Scolari, in a series of roles ranging from Lakers coach Pat Reilly and owner Jerry Buss, Celtics' cigar-chomping general manager Red Auerbach, and a stereotypically obnoxious Boston sports fan, is his own one-man show. And Deirdre O'Connell, who also handles several roles, shines brightest as Bird's no-nonsense mother, who brings the two stars together over her Indiana kitchen table in one of the most awkward summits since Reagan sat down with Gorbachev. Sadly, their sketchy Beantown accents don't hold up nearly as well. Still, director Thomas Kail stages the play's quick-hit vignettes and seamless set changes with the ease of one of Magic's signature no-look passes.
As vividly as the actors inhabit their parts, Eric Simonson's story is a bit too thin for Broadway. Anyone who caught HBO's first-rate documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals understands the added power of seeing clips of these superstars squaring off in their primes (when the Lakers and the Celtics seemed to inevitably face each other in the NBA Finals just about every year during the '80s). Magic/Bird, though, is primarily concerned with dramatizing the inner lives of these men, which may have been the least exciting thing about them.
That changes, of course, when Magic is diagnosed with HIV, an event that brought these two gladiators closer and forged a bond beyond basketball. But even that tragic circumstance the emotional highpoint of the play is treated with kid gloves. We never find out how Johnson contracted the virus or really feel how it affected him beyond the brave face he put on for the public. There's a terrifically low-key moment when Magic and Bird talk over the phone about his diagnosis. The scene opens the show and is reprised near the end, landing with the force of a gut punch. But after the curtain falls, you can't help feeling that these men were most compelling when they let their play on the court do the talking. C+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)