A mixed cast of Australians and Americans presents a revival of this play about Aussie rules football.
David Williamson is one of Australia's most prolific dramatists, but few in the United States are familiar with his work. Australian Made Entertainment (made up of the husband-and-wife producing team Matthew and Kathleen Foster) is doing its part to change this with a revival of Williamson's The Club at Urban Stages. The play follows the backroom dealings of an Australian rules football club circa 1977. (The Club briefly appeared on Broadway in 1978 under the title The Players.) While the subject matter may feel 10,000 miles away from New York audiences, the situations and characters are quite immediate. In fact, Williamson's take on the corporatization of professional sports feels downright prescient these 37 years after he originally wrote it.
The play takes place in a conference room for one of Australia's most storied football teams. A small shelf of trophies rests on an upstage wall, surrounded by framed photographs of important players from the past. Travis Bell's scenic design is tastefully Spartan, befitting a space in which men in suits spend endless hours discussing football.
Laurie (David Sedgwick) is the team's beloved coach, on the verge of resigning over the abuses of the new management led by Ted (Matthew Foster), the club president. Ted sees himself as dragging the team into the future: buying talent and instituting top-down corporate-style management. Laurie sees him as an autocrat and is particularly irked by the recent high-priced acquisition of Geoff (Samuel Douglas Clark), a star player with a bad attitude. Club administrator Gerry (Marc LeVasseur) calls them into a meeting in an attempt to smooth out their differences. Jock (Peter Reznikoff), a former player and coach of the team who now serves as VP, thinks he can solve the team's problems with his unique brand of innovation and tradition. Meanwhile, player Danny (Andrew Justin Smith) is threatening to lead the team on strike if Laurie is sacked.
The whole two hours is dominated, quite literally, by inside ball. Sports fans (especially those familiar with the ins and outs of Australian football) will find the most enjoyment in the play, but the type of subtle politicking and professional undermining exhibited in The Club can also be found in any fiefdom full of petty tyrants and heroes. There's about as much backstabbing and palace intrigue in this play as in an average episode of Game of Thrones.
It's also very funny. Williamson has a knack for edgy, sometimes deliciously vulgar language, delivered with a distinctly Australian flavor.
Each member of the cast carries his weight in conveying Williamson's razor-sharp language, although touch-and-go Australian accents betray the mixed nationality of the cast. Reznikoff, in particular, seems to have completely given up on affecting anything close to an Australian dialect. He makes up for it by delicately balancing Jock's dual roles as both the club's elder statesman and resident moron. His booming voice simultaneously commands authority and suggests the sort of suspended adolescence one would see from the high school quarterback in middle age, his best years far behind him.
The production is done as a period piece: Emily Rose Parman's costumes are all very much from the '70s, although they don't scream this nearly as much as the artful facial hair worn by the cast. (Smith's inspiring mustache-and-sideburns combo wins MVP or "best and fairest," as they say Down Under.) It all feels very much specific to its time.
Still, the play stands on the precipice of larger global economic trends: This is a moment right before the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, when neoliberal values would sweep away the statist traditions that had seemed firmly entrenched in much of the developed world. Characters like Ted and Gerry are harbingers of that, and a monologue in which Ted is insistent that he will be remembered for bringing the team into the future feels spookily prophetic.
Since the play was written in 1977, the text does not reflect any of this, but it does reveal Williamson as a keen observer of history, even as he was living through it.