All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Though Bruce Graham’s play is set on the eve of a potential Philadelphia sports triumph — Super Bowl XXXIX which pitted the Eagles against the New England Patriots — it more often chronicles the long-suffering, patiently impatient diehard who supports local professional teams that, among them, earned six championships in the last 50 years while disappointing mightily on multiple occasions and setting ignominious records for failure, loss, and just missing the bus.
As written by Graham and portrayed by Tom Carthy, whose idea spawned this 2005 play, the Philadelphia sports fan is no fair-weather enthusiast. He and she are in there, game in and game out, root, root, rooting their lungs raw, hearts unabashedly on their sleeves, boos emerging from their booze-slaked throats.
This is no effete, delicate, suffer-in-silence bunch. The Philadelphia sports fan can grouse with the best of them. He’ll tell you how he feels and do so with typical Philadelphia straightforwardness, no holds barred, no censorship, and no regard for what the Joe in hearing range thinks. (Unless he’s playing to him to get a reaction, such a good argument.)
The beauty of Graham’s play is it works whether Philadelphia teams are contending or, as is the current case, finding new ways to embarrass their fan base. McCarthy’s character, simply called The Fan, is no sad sack. He can recall victories and extol everyone from Chuck Bednarik to Cole Hamels, but he also remembers wresting defeat from the jaws of victory and the teams that were barely worth their uniforms. And he knows what a morass Philly teams face in 2016.
Best of all, “The Philly Fan” centers on sports but isn’t confined to it. Graham finds the pulse and humor in the city. McCarthy’s Fan is the authentic homo sapiens Philadelphianus. He suggests all things Philadelphia. Especially the local custom of joking at someone else’s expense and looking at everything through jaundiced-tinted glasses that spark well-honed sarcasm and attitude as home-bred and indigenous as an Amoroso roll or Tastykake.
Bruce Graham is always funny, and he always endows his characters with sharp observation expressed in the Philly way, even when those characters are in L.A. or small university Eastern towns. McCarthy becomes the quintessential Philly guy, joshing with friends, getting sentimental about the departed, being arch one minute and matter-of-fact the next, calling life as he sees it, and giving an outsider, a Dallas Cowboys fan, a Philly welcome that combines teasing, explanations of Philadelphia ways and traditiojs, and convivial good cheer.
The Fan, for instance, is quick to advise the Cowboys fan not to wear too much “America’s team” regalia in South Philly and that his money is not good in a Philadelphia bar. At least not until the second round, at which time, in grand Philly fashion, after refusing to accept a drink before buying one, he says, “It’s about time you ponied up for something.”
Philly folks, you gotta love ’em.
And Philly teams are in the same boat. The 2016 lot have a lot in common with unrefrigerated fish, but they have our loyalty and our hearts. The Eagles are in limbo after Chip Kelly drove off major talent to build a team that reinforced the meaning of mediocrity. The Phillies, after being loyal to players that helped forge 2008 euphoria and being snakebit by some unpredictable, untimely injuries to players who should have had some gas left in their tanks — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard — are finally in a rebuilding mode. Reading their 40-man roster is an exercise in “whodat,” but the Philly fan, being guardedly optimistic, is excited about new faces and a new beginning. (Not having a starting rotation or an outfield doesn’t daunt in the least.) The Flyers continue the regional tradition of heartbreak with a team that underachieves just when it looks as if they might break loose and surge. The Sixers are a disgrace of intellectual planning and rampant MBAization of management that overlooks one key component, the game of basketball. Doop doop for the Union. If you’ve heard of them, please call Chester and let them know.
These teams are foundering, but Philadelphians will watch them, cheer for them, and hope against hope for a miracle that might eke the winning percentage to higher than .500 or see a team — Let’s go, Flyers! — even ferret out a playoff berth.
Wouldn’t that be grand?
Tom McCarthy’s fan doesn’t wallow in pity.
He shows how sympathy might be warranted, but he is too ironic to feel sorry for himself. His emotions are reserved for negative-shake-of-the-head resignation, his attitude one of ridicule for the bums that have owned or managed Philly franchises. Jeff Lurie, one of the more successful on the bunch in terms of overall wins, is a particular whipping boy. Phillies management also gets some raking over. Graham and McCarthy may have overlooked Greg Jeffries, but they’re not letting the Lance Parrish signing go unlamented.
Under Joe Canuso’s direction, McCarthy fluidly goes through the woes, joys, and habit of the Philly fan. Canuso keeps Graham’s show running smoothly and energetically. There’s never a lull in action and never a time when McCarthy, Graham, and Canuso don’t find a way to command your attention.
“The Philly Fan” is funny and entertaining to high degrees, but it is also warm and insightful. McCarthy finds the right tone in speaking about his late wife, Roe, and the guy who was his sports companion for more than 50 years. He talks in regular-guy terms about being a father and about his relationship with his grandson. You see The Fan as a total human being whose sports enthusiasm is part of a larger life that includes family, a job, friends, and mouthing off at the bar with buddies he’s known since Billy Penn stopped in to order a nice, cold mead. And to the Dallas rooter, who is learning Philly manners from a guy who is a textbook example of them.
McCarthy, Graham, and Canuso show their audience a complete person who can appeal to a general audience. Within this person is that passionate, disgruntled, hopeful, despairing Philadelphia sports fan who regularly sees promise and potential dashed and bears it with a loud, opinionated brand of stoicism. Along with some pointed boos.
Hey, you can’t get too mad at what you know is going to happen. No unhatched chicken counting here! Anyone who lived through, or heard their elders tell about, the 1964 Phillies or 1980 Eagles, not to mention the 2010 and 2011 Phillies and the 2002, 2003, and 2004 Eagles, has the sense to put ambition and expectation on a back burner, to be moved forward only when it looks as if a good team will prevail over Philly luck and actually win something.
Yes, even the young have something to remember and regret. It’s the way of the Philly sports world. Get used to it. Being a Philly fan is a great lesson in resilience. So what if we’re usually cast as one of those inflated clowns that bounces up to be clobbered anew. We face our fate with grit, boos, and joke-laden mortification.
Graham and McCarthy don’t let you forget there are good times, too. Footage tacked at the end of “The Philly Fan” shows McCarthy, in character, at the 2008 Phillies parade down Broad Street. (Bruce Graham can also be spotted in the video.) The ecstasy the Flyers’ back to back Stanley Cup wins in 1974 and 1975 is also shared. So are the Phils’ victory of 1980, the bizarre team of misfits that made it to the Series in 1993, the Sixers title in 1983, and the Eagles’ visits to the Super Bowl. As nostalgic moments, glorious and infamous, arise, local comedian Joe Conklin can be heard doing his time-honored vocal impressions of Pantheon announcers, Harry Kalas and Merrill Reese.
Yes, “The Philly Fan” concentrates on debacles because they’re funnier and truer to the Philadelphia experience. The show is set on the February 2005 day before the Super Bowl. The Eagles were never considered a favorite in the contest, not like they were in 1981 against the Oakland Raiders. McCarthy’s fan is already anticipating a loss while praising Donovan McNabb, Andy Reid, and Terrell Owens, soon to be one more sad case in Philadelphia sports annals, but someone The Fan, on the afternoon we meet him, is thrilled to have signed to a six-year contract.
The energy and variety of McCarthy’s performance belie the news he is nearing age 80. He projects experienced middle age and has the youthful outlook of a guy who is waiting for something happen, e.g. more parades down Broad Street to for Philly teams.
No set designer is listed, but “The Philly Fan” moves neatly from a bar that dominates center stage to The Fan’s stage righ living room, where no one is permitted to sit in the spot occupied for years by his primary sports buddy, and some bleacher seats that resemble old Vet seats, to the left. The Fan’s fate on Father’s Day 1964, when Jim Bunning pitches his perfect game, is priceless and the underscores the reality and human nature of Graham’s story.
“The Philly Fan” runs through Sunday, March 6, at the Montgomery Theater, 124 Main Street, in Souderton, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $27 and can be ordered by calling 215-723-9984 or by visiting www.montgomerytheater.org.