The Auerbach Dynasty
Written and Directed by Ken Dooley, Produced by Piyush Patel & Paul Plourde; Pamela Lambert, Technical Director; Steve Lipofsky, Photography; Joe Rossi, Makeup; Josh Kantor, Organist; Carter Miller, Lighting Designer
Featuring: Jeff Gill as Red Auerbach
Performances through July 3 at the Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown; Box Office 617-923-84847 or www.arsenalarts.org
When it comes to professional sports teams, Boston is a city of champions, past and present. Before the triumphs of the Patriots, Red Sox, and Bruins in the last decade, the biggest and shiniest crown rested on the heads of the Boston Celtics, winners of eleven National Basketball Association (NBA) Championships in thirteen years, including eight consecutive titles between 1959 and 1966. The architect of that success was the late Arnold "Red" Auerbach, the legendary coach profiled by his close friend Ken Dooley in The Auerbach Dynasty. Following a month-long run in April at the Park Theatre at the Rhode Island Center for the Performing Arts in Cranston, Dooley brings the show home to its Massachusetts roots for two weeks in Watertown.
Jeff Gill reprises his role as Auerbach and commands the stage for nearly two hours. Although it is a solo performance, Gill gets a lot of backup from projected images on a giant screen behind him. There are pictures of Red as a boy and young man, with his family and classmates, in both his college basketball and Navy uniforms, and with the love of his life, his wife Dorothy. Other photos comprise a giant scrapbook of the glory days of the Celtics, showing the sports heroes who were (and many still are) household names: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Sam and K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders, John Havlicek, etc. (It was quite a thrill for me to rub elbows with Cousy and Heinsohn in the audience on opening night.)
The two acts consist of a seamless catalogue of anecdotes from Auerbach's life, starting with the ubiquitous Victory Cigar, and covering both his personal history and that of the NBA in general and the Boston Celtics in particular. Gill addresses the audience directly and imparts an immense amount of information in a down to earth manner. He talks about Red's early days as a coach and how he came to work for owner Walter Brown and the Celtics. Together, the two men broke the color barrier and built a championship team that became a dynasty. They were also responsible for establishing that intangible quality known as Celtic Pride.
For people of a certain age, it is a nostalgia trip to listen to the stories about the team in the 50s and 60s. For people of a different age, the signing of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish signaled the resurgence of the team for the better part of the 80s and the last championship of the twentieth century in 1986. Gill convincingly conveys Auerbach's heartfelt sorrow at the loss of 1986 draftee Len Bias, who died from a cocaine overdose, and hometown favorite Reggie Lewis, who was felled in 1993 by a heart attack while playing the sport he so loved. The actor's greatest challenge is to sustain the audience's energy level because he doesn't get too many dramatic moments. As fiery as Red could be at courtside, the script calls for Gill to be more professorial storyteller than rousing cheerleader, and his movement on the stage is limited to rising from a wing chair to a standing position, sitting on a bench, and walking back to the chair. One of the few props is a basketball resting enticingly on the bench and I hoped it might get some play, but Gill picks it up briefly just once.
As interesting as all the stories are, after awhile there is a sameness to the delivery and I think The Auerbach Dynasty would benefit from Dooley weeding out a few segments. Most fans are aware that Red favored Chinese food and the playwright intersperses a smattering of fortune cookie sayings that are, for the most part, non sequiturs. Cutting those lines might be a good place to start because Gill picks up sheets of paper and reads them, interrupting the flow of whatever he is saying and giving the impression that he has lost his train of thought.
The Auerbach Dynasty is clearly a labor of love and a wonderful homage to the man who was an institution in Boston. Dooley directed Auerbach in a film in 1984, co-wrote a book with him in 1991, and had been a close friend for over 20 years. He created the piece based on personal conversations and interviews, and with the cooperation of Auerbach's family, friends, and former colleagues. It is neither a whitewash nor a glorification as Red was aware of his own shortcomings and Dooley details some of them. It is fair to say that Arnold "Red" Auerbach made a major contribution to the NBA, the Boston Celtics, and the city of Boston that cannot be fully chronicled in a mere two hours. However, you will walk away with a deeper understanding of the man and his values of pride, integrity, and dedication, all of which are in shorter supply without him around.