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Theater Review (NYC): The Changing Room

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It’s 1973 all over again and there’s a little sports drama boomlet going on in the New York Theatre scene. Joining Lombardi, That Championship Season has recently opened on Broadway, and now The Changing Room, the other sports drama of 1973, is at the T. Schreiber Studios Theatre.

Nominated for best play in 1973, but losing to That Championship Season, The Changing Room remains a remarkable play in that albeit small genre of sports dramas. After all, how many plays make the cover of Sports Illustrated?

The Changing Room is just what’s advertised – a slice of life in the pre-game locker room of a semi-pro rugby team in an English town hit hard by the early 70s economy. Although much of the play seems a little dated, and is sometimes played that way for laughs, there is relevancy in rugger Patsy Turner’s (Matt Watson) lament that he pays so much tax that he is “paying the government to keep me i’ bloody work.” These little instances in the play give it a timeless authenticity.

T. Schreiber Studios productions are predominately student presentations, but always of the highest quality – getting the most out of rhyme and space. The set for The Changing Room, by Hal Tiné, is perfect, full of 70s color, white tile on the floor for easy washing and a nondescript pink/tan for the walls – the universal color of a thousand locker rooms. It’s a small space making the direction (Terry Schreiber) that much more challenging. Direction becomes choreography when setting up scrums, and here is where the rugby consultant, Ben Bergen, gets his due.

There are moments, especially in the beginning of the play, where you wish that playwright David Storey had decided to depict the everyday life of a struggling basketball team. With naturalistic dialogue and little exposition, the 16 players swarm in a confusion of towels, jockstraps and uneven accents (In a 22 man cast, it might advisable to structure the playbill by order of appearance.) The Changing Room really comes alive at points of entrance and exit. It is only when the players become a team that the production becomes a play: the team being so much more than the sum of its parts, the play being more than just pranks in a locker room.

Led by the dependable Captain Cliff Owens (Mike Dazé, looking very much the 70s leading man) the team lines up, running in place, knees high, fists clenched, yelling their defiance to an unseen opponent. These are thrilling moments that quite effectively capture a real stadium excitement despite the imaginary pitch.

In such a large cast, in a play without a real story, it is hard for actors to make themselves distinguishable, especially when all are in shorts and the same striped shirts, but Eric Percival (above, far left), recently in T. Schreiber’s successful Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, makes Barry Copley his own – identifiable among all the hard bodies as being one off season from retirement on the LA-Z-Boy fitted with bottomless Doritos. The elderly attendant to the locker room, Harry Riley, who has never seen a game because his job is contained within the room, is played with studied vigilance by Peter Judd. Poor Harry – he’s not the sharpest tool in Kendal’s toolbox, but he does the job.

And speaking of Kendal’s toolbox, it’s confusing with both Kenny (the preening Edwin Sean Patterson) and Kendal, but Joshua Sienkiewicz as the latter, even with stents in his nose, effects one of the most complete characters in the play. Introducing the new power toolkit he has just purchased to his teasing teammates, Sienkiewicz shows the vulnerability of an innocent enthusiasm that belies his toughness on the field. A believable scrum-half (as a former rugby player myself, I’m just guessing), all this Kendal needs is cauliflower ears. John Lithgow won a Tony for Best Featured Actor in this role back in 1973. A Tony, a Sports Illustrated cover, Kendal is more than he seems – a voice for whom actions on the field speak louder.

Eliud Kauffman as Sandford the trainer had an affability just right for the role, guiding the players through the disorder of both anticipation and celebration. It would a natural role for him it turns out. He played rugby for Princeton. Trevor is the only black man on the team, but race is not an issue between him and his mates – class is. The fact that Trevor’s wife has an education is the point of difference and discussion in the room. As Trevor, Leajato Amara Robinson holds a compelling balance between camaraderie and wariness

Earlier this year, Buffalo billionaire Bob Rich bought the Bedlington Terriers, a semi-pro soccer team in an English town so poor that ‘even the pubs are closed” says the New York Times. It’s one of those great human interest stories in which you wish the media would continue its interest. I suspect at some point, down the road, Mr. Rich will resemble Sir Frederick Thornton (Edward Franklin, front center), owner of the North Country Rugby team in The Changing Room, trying to always be there for his men, trying to say all the right things when words don’t matter.

Additional cast: Matthew Ballinger (Billy Spencer), Marcin Paluch (Bryan Atkinson), Luke Guldan (Colin Jagger), David Donahoe (Danny Crosby), Lowell Byers (Fielding), Brian Podnos (Frank Moore), Sean Gallagher (Gordon Fenchurch), Justin Noble (Jack Stringer), Nick Fesette (John Clegg), Randy Miles (Luke), Rick Forstmann (Mackendrick), Edward Campbell (Michaelmas Morley), John B. McCann (Tallon).

The Changing Room runs through April 3 at the Gloria Maddox Theatre. Photos by Daniel Terna.

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About Kate Shea Kennon