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Slam Dunk

January 18, 2007

Why aren't there more plays about sports? As a metaphor for life, soccer, golf, basketball, baseball etc etc have all proved very powerful in the movies. There's no end to sports genre films in which the hero overcomes inconceivable odds to achieve his dreams and win his girl. But you don't see that many plays about sports on stage. Let me see. Off the top of my head, there's the musical Damn Yankees (baseball), Richard Greenberg's baseball play Take Me Out, Rebecca Gilman's baseball play The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, an Italian two-hander about running by Eduardo Erba entitled Marathon, and the basketball drama 3 Seconds in the Key, which I saw for the first time last night at SF Playhouse.

There are two basic problems when it comes to staging sports: One, is that there isn't much of an overlap between people who love theatre and people who love sports. That's a crass over generalization I know, but it's true none the less. Two, staging sports is hard. Presenting a team of sweaty rugby players in a scrum on stage is logistically demanding.

On the other hand, the theatre ought to be a great place for sports plays. For one thing, the stage is the ultimate artistic repository for metaphor. Playwrights ought to be a position to pick up the usual, dull idea of sports as a way of life and run with it, turning it into something more profound than any movie could manage. For another, you don't need to show entire teams, goal posts, and cheering crowds on stage. If Shakespeare can do entire armies with a handful of actors, then so can others.

That 3 Seconds in the Key is a shapeless mess isn't the fault of SF Playhouse. The play is about a woman (based on the author) whose battle against Hodgkin's disease puts her into a sort of timewarp while she recovers at home. Her son's infatuation with the New York Knicks leads her on a strange hallucinatory path in which conversations with one of the Knicks' players helps her to come to terms with -- and ultimately beat -- her illness. The problem is that despite some lines that are as beautiful as the frozen moment in time in which a great basket ball player jumps high into the air and slams the ball down into the net and some extremely funny moments, Margolin tries so hard to do something new and different with the theme of basketball that she ends up dropping the ball.

No matter though: I was completely won over by the performances and the kinetic energy and choreography of Leigh Fondakowski's direction. She defies common sense by putting 5 burly guys in Knicks uniforms on stage, bouncing
a ball up and down and shooting it into a real basketball net in such a cramped space. But it worked beautifully.

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