Tug Coker and Kevin Daniels in Magic/Bird
(© Joan Marcus)
Tug Coker and Kevin Daniels in Magic/Bird
(© Joan Marcus)
Basketball fans will find themselves reliving some thrilling moments in the game's history in Eric Simonson's Magic/Bird, playing at Broadway's Longacre Theatre.

While the play may not be as successful in delivering the story of the years-long relationship between Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin "Magic" Johnson (Kevin Daniels) and Boston Celtics great Larry Bird (Tug Coker), the work of a tireless company makes the production a pleasant -- and sometimes even touching -- theatrical experience.

The show begins like an actual game, with each cast member bounding center stage (designer David Korins telescopes court and locker rooms stylishly) in white warm-up suits (costumes by Paul Tazwell), as a voiceover announces their names and the roles they'll be playing. The production then shifts to something like a choral interlude from a classic Greek play with characters expressing their shock and sadness about Magic's announcement about his HIV status in 1991.

After this unique one-two punch opening, Simonson's play settles into a formulaic drama, hitting the high points of Johnson's and Bird's careers, from the moments when they were drafted to the times when they meet one another in championship games (brought to life with aplomb by James Sugg's impressive media design) to the friendship that they develop off the court after Johnson goes to Bird's hometown of French Lick, Indiana to film a now-classic Converse sneaker commercial.

As the two men wait for Bird's mother (the estimable Deirdre O'Connell in one of several superlative turns) to finish her lunch preparations, they bond over the similarities in their lives. It's a gentle, humor-filled portrait of a slow, awkward thaw that Daniels and Coker deliver with rugged gentility.

Along the way, Simonson dramatizes the rabid devotion and rivalry among fans that Johnson and Bird inspired during their careers, and the play even touches upon racial tensions that simmer beneath the fans' devotion. In one particularly memorable scene set in a Boston bar, two men (played by the multiply cast Francois Battiste and Peter Scolari) nearly come to blows. Their anger with one another is fueled as much by the disagreement over Johnson's and Bird's merits as the racial divide that has separated them in their hometown.

Interspersed with these handsomely crafted sequences are more presentational ones that Simonson uses to communicate the intensity of the players' passion for their game and their deep desire to best one another. Unfortunately, these moments, which form a preponderance of the piece, give the show an unconvincing and almost essay-like quality.

Nevertheless, Daniels and Coker evoke their real-life counterparts terrifically and never succumb to attempting full-on impersonations. Daniels captures Johnson's charismatic gregariousness, while Coker, who adopts a terrific Midwest twang, brings Bird's curt, deadpan dryness to life marvelously.

Fortunately, the entire cast -- rounded out by Robert Manning, Jr. -- also succeed in bringing several famous public figures to life ably; for example, Scolari captures L.A. Laker coach Pat Riley's hawk-like demeanor and Battiste amuses with his impersonation of a young Bryant Gumbel, often awe-struck by both the players and their on-court feats.