Fouled out

With Ohio Tip-Off, the Dallas Theater Center takes aim at the merry dance of dreams and commerce that is professional sports.

Unfortunately, it puts up an air ball.
The play takes for its subject the Ohio Shakers, a team mired in the recesses of the downscale Continental Basketball Association. The CBA is the bad twin of the NBA. Where the latter is a glitter parade of glory and riches, the former is a repository of used-to-be high-school basketball legends and underachieving high draft picks who endure low pay and often minimal fan interest for a crack at the big time.

The Holy Grail of CBAers is the 10-day NBA contract, generally offered because an NBA player has gone down with an injury. The chances of getting such a contract are not good, but they are just good enough to sustain players through a grueling season of bumps, bruises, and bus rides. Over the past five NBA seasons, according to a DTC press release, more than 100 players were called up from the CBA, though fewer than half were kept by big-league teams. Last season there were a record-high 88 former CBAers playing in the NBA, along with three former CBA coaches, including Phil Jackson, coach of the three-time World Champion Chicago Bulls.

So while the transformation from CBA ugly duckling to NBA swan isn't a daily occurrence, it does happen. To drive home the point, the CBA officially nicknames itself "The League of Dreams."

For the Shakers, the moment of truth--a visit from an NBA scout whose team needs another warm body--comes on a night when the opposing team fails to show up. The Shakers then have to play one-on-one against each other for the scout's benefit, in a winner-take-all game to see who makes it to the next level. All the basketball, of course, takes place off-stage. The play concerns what goes on behind the action in the theater and kangaroo court that is the locker room, a place the average fan never sees.

This is certainly a promising premise for a play, particularly in a town like Dallas, which likes to idolize its athletic heroes without looking too closely under sports' gaudy veneer. DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger selected the piece for that reason, but his usually penetrating eye for a fresh, resonant script failed him here.

James Yoshimura's play, while often pungent (the word "fuck" is sprinkled throughout like pepper over an otherwise tasteless salad) is disappointingly underwritten. Yoshimura, who now draws a paycheck as writer-producer of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," does not come anywhere near the level of the best writing now to be found on television with this piece, which means he's a long stretch from achieving the intricate wordsmithing necessary to sustain a drama on stage.

The first act, in particular, lacks the rhythm, pacing, and clash of personalities found in a good ball game. The players exchange rueful remarks about the death of amenities in the CBA, about their own aspirations, and about Sawyer, the vehement coach and part-owner of the team. The exchanges are curiously flat and unrevealing for locker-room talk, however, and the only palpable tension arises over whether or not there will be any FFMM (full frontal male nudity) as the players don and doff their uniforms. There isn't, though there are a few PVMBs (partially viewed male buttocks).

In the second act, Yoshimura tries to flesh out the characters (figuratively, that is) a bit and hint at their motivations, relationships, and frailties. Unfortunately, that only makes things worse, as the characterization remains painfully shallow. For example, one player, a forward who seems to be in the early stages of Alzheimer's, complains that his "bitch" keeps putting pressure on him to succeed. Doesn't the bitch realize that playing ball is a job? Can't the bitch see what the endless bus rides and chili dog breakfasts are doing to him? Fuck the bitch, if the bitch can't see that.

Though this monologue is unconvincing and unimaginative, it's not as downright embarrassing as a speech which follows. In the midst of a naturalistic, slice-of-life play, one of the hoopsters who is left alone in the locker room actually delivers a soliloquy, of all things. Part On the Waterfront ("I coulda been a contenda"), part Hamlet ("To be or not to be"), it's a mostly unintelligible ramble that asks us to feel sorry for a man draped in a towel who's built like Hercules. Get real, as Troy Aikman would say.

When the one-on-one competition is finally over, the winner is a player we have come to know or care little about. Other than a few obvious points (e.g., "sports is a business," "athletes are human") very little in the way of humor, pathos, or excitement has transpired on the stage.

You wouldn't expect all this to be the fault of the actors or the director at the usually reliable DTC, and it isn't. Guest director Kenny Leon, who is artistic director of the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, wrings out what little mirth or dramatic tension was written into the play. The actors, including DTC veteran Billy Eugene Jones and promising newcomer Khary Payton, who played the title role in Jubilee Theater's Black Orpheus earlier this year, do their best to substitute stage presence for the characterization that's missing from the play. Set designer Christopher Barreca also contributes positively with a locker room that looks like it's lifted directly from a 30-year-old civic sports center in Lima, Ohio, sweat stains, smelly sneakers, and all.

It's a lost cause, however, as Ohio Tip-Off is a play that never should have made it to the majors.

Ohio Tip-Off runs through November 19 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Call 522-8499 for ticket information.