The forward slash in the title of the new sports play Magic/Bird does more than differentiate the names of its protagonists: It suggests an opposition and implies a mandatory choice. Who’s your man? Is it the garrulous, grinning prodigy Earvin “Magic” Johnson, forever joshing the press and posing for the fans? Or do you pin your hoop dreams on Larry Bird, laconic, deadpan Midwesterner who would just as soon slip out the side door as endure autograph hounds and postgame queries? You’ve got to love one and hate the other, right?
Well, no—and that’s the essential sweetness of this amiable homage to opponents on the 1980s court who became fast friends. We watch as the b-ball rivalry between high-altitude jocks Johnson (Kevin Daniels) and Bird (Tug Coker) mellows into bromance. Eric Simonson’s script—modestly extrapolated from the players’ autobiographies—milks what enmity it can between them, but the seed of their initial antipathy is never satisfyingly explained. It’s not a racial thing, or a class barrier, so we must chalk up the tension to athletic envy. You wonder if Simonson wished he could twist the facts or deepen the psychology, and the project feels supervised and sanitized: barely any swearing, drinking or other vices. (Johnson’s contracting HIV is covered, but not the root of his promiscuity.)
Gleaming with busy video backdrops and stadium kliegs, Thomas Kail’s production is light, speedy and gamely acted by the spunky ensemble. Daniels and Coker were obviously cast for extreme verticality, but they also acquit themselves with humor and grace. Slipping in and out of a variety of supporting roles, Peter Scolari and the wonderful Deirdre O’Connell add emotional ballast to the whoosh of statistics and ESPN-friendly trivia. If the total package is less effective drama than Lombardi (the creative team’s previous foray into sports history), it’s an affable and warmhearted diversion. Just as with the real-life Magic and Bird, there’s a patina of conflict, but that’s just a fake-out.—David Cote