Playwright Eric Simonson has a real gift for bringing out the human side of sports stories. His 2010 play Lombardi let us in on legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi’s deep, sincere affection for both the game and his players. Now, his Magic/Bird follows one of the fiercest rivalries in sports history, sprawling over decades as Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, two of the all-time great basketball players, battle for championships, MVP awards, and dominance of their sport.
This was less of a surprise to me than Lombardi. Having seen that other play, I knew that I wasn’t in for an evening of stats and machismo. Stats are referred to but never laid out, and macho shit talk is played almost entirely for laughs.
Magic/Bird is both more epic and human-scale than Lombardi. Where the earlier play asked interesting questions about all kinds of ethical issues, this one straightforwardly tells the engaging story of an intense rivalry developing into an equally intense friendship. On the other hand, Lombardi focused on a single incident, whereas Magic/Bird follows our heroes through the golden days of their careers, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Johnson was also one of the first prominent American heterosexuals to admit to contracting HIV, and that is dealt with quite sensitively.
Kevin Daniels is Magic and Tug Coker is Bird, and both are rock-solid. The real acting treat of the show, though, are stage veterans Deirdre O’Connell and Peter Scolari tearing up the stage in series of mostly comic smaller roles. Director Thomas Kail is once again Simonson’s creative partner, and his inventive staging makes creative, restrained use of projections and turntables – all purposeful, never just spectacle for spectacle’s sake. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy Magic/Bird, just a fan of good storytelling and solid entertainment.
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