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Stage Review

‘Magic/Bird’ misses the mark on Broadway

Kevin Daniels (as Magic Johnson) and Tug Coker (as Larry Bird) play the two great basketball rivals who grow to become friends in “Magic/Bird.”

Joan Marcus

Kevin Daniels (as Magic Johnson) and Tug Coker (as Larry Bird) play the two great basketball rivals who grow to become friends in “Magic/Bird.”

NEW YORK — Above the marquee of the Longacre Theatre, where “Magic/Bird’’ opened Wednesday night, looms a huge blowup of a photo taken of Larry Bird and Earvin (Magic) Johnson during their playing days.

Hip to hip, their arms entangled, Larry in Celtic green and Magic in Laker gold, they gaze intently upward as they jostle for rebounding position. It is a portrait of superstars utterly focused on gaining even a fractional competitive edge over each other, but the image also suggests a kinship between a pair of very different men who view the world in fundamentally the same way.

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Alas, that photo says more about their relationship than “Magic/Bird’’ ever gets around to saying, and is more compelling to look at, too.

With this play, the team behind “Lombardi,’’ a 2010 Broadway drama about the late Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, has heaved up an airball — or, at best, a jumper that clangs off the rim.

The plodding pace, greatest-hits superficiality, and hagiographic tone of “Magic/Bird’’ feels jarringly dated, especially at a time when ESPN’s “30 for 30’’ documentary series has shown what provocative stories can be found and told by those willing to probe beneath the myths that surround sports icons.

Instead, “Magic/Bird’’ floats along the surface, giving off a strong whiff of authorized biography. Written by Eric Simonson and directed by Thomas Kail, the 90-minute, one-act play draws on conversations with both ex-players. Magic Johnson is listed in the Playbill as one of the “Friends of ‘Magic/Bird,’ ’’ and he is slated to participate in an audience talkback after this week’s Friday matinee. That may explain why “Magic/Bird’’ treads so cautiously, or perhaps it’s simply that the producers are aiming for a family audience and have gone overboard in keeping it simple.

Whatever the reason, a lot of rich dramatic material is left on the sidelines, and two complex men register as cardboard figures who spout platitudes like this one, from Magic: “There’s only room for one of us at the top.’’ Even during the play’s most fully realized scene, when Larry (Tug Coker) and Magic (Kevin Daniels) forge a bond in Bird’s hometown of French Lick, Ind., while talking about the impact their fathers had on them, there is no mention of the monumental fact that Bird’s father committed suicide when the son was 18.

Such skirting of touchy subjects might matter less if the central relationship of “Magic/Bird’’ came into clearer focus. But it never quite does. At one point, Red Auerbach (portrayed by a cigar-wielding Peter Scolari, who also plays Lakers coach Pat Riley, something Red would not be happy about) is musing on what sets Larry and Magic apart from the rest of the players in the NBA. “Basketball intelligence, genius-level!” exclaims Red. “They’re practically twins.’’ But based on the sketchy, underdeveloped interactions we see, Magic and Larry come across as not much more than a couple of famous guys who grew to like each other after years of on-court rivalry.

Boston’s troubled racial history and the implications of the matter-of-fact friendship between Bird and Johnson are touched upon in “Magic/Bird,’’ but not explored. A verbal confrontation in a “Cheers’’-like bar between a white patron and a black patron over who is the better athlete is played, at least partly, for laughs.

It’s one of several head-scratching moments in “Magic/Bird.’’ My first inner “Uh-oh’’ occurred at the very beginning of the play, when members of the cast, attired in warmup jackets, are introduced as though they are part of a starting NBA lineup, complete with pump-it-up music. When the play reenacts Magic’s shocking 1991 announcement that he is retiring from basketball because he has tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, the actual press conference is shown on a video screen behind Daniels. The result is distraction and dilution.

One bright spot is Coker’s performance as Bird. Without forcing or overplaying it, Coker evokes the Larry Legend whom Bostonians remember so well: a laconic, enigmatic figure — especially in the early years — with a dry, deadpan wit and a deliberate, shambling gait.

With any sports drama, you brace yourself for that cringe-inducing moment when an actor has to pass for an athlete. (Need I say more than “William Bendix in ‘The Babe Ruth Story’ ”? Didn’t think so.) But Coker’s got game. He is relaxed, confident, and entirely plausible as Bird when he has a basketball in his hands, including a scene where he shuts up Celtics teammate Cedric Maxwell (Robert Manning Jr.) by repeatedly breezing past him in a one-on-one matchup.

Daniels is less successful in his portrayal of Magic (and not just because he dribbles a basketball tentatively). The actor is just not able to capture Magic’s electric, larger-than-life charisma. The result is a performance — all too common in bio-dramas — where a towering personality shrinks in the transfer to the stage or screen.

Deirdre O’Connell is an asset as Bird’s mother, Georgia (she also plays Larry’s wife, Dinah). But can someone explain why Francois Battiste has chosen, or been encouraged by the director, to portray Bryant Gumbel with an absurdly over-the-top falsetto?

Nothing onstage here is remotely as entertaining as the experience of watching the real Bird and Johnson on the court or listening to them talk. Consider these lines from Bird, not included in “Magic/Bird,’’ after the Celtics lost the third game of the 1984 finals to the Lakers by 33 points. First Larry asserted that the Celtics had played like “sissies,’’ and when reporters asked what was needed to change the situation, Bird retorted: “You go to the hospital and get 12 heart transplants.”

You just can’t improve on dialogue like that.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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