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Another sports play: 'Magic/Bird' opens

Tug Coker, as Larry Bird, left, and Kevin

Tug Coker, as Larry Bird, left, and Kevin Daniels, as Earvin "Magic" Johnson, in a scene from "Magic/Bird," a new play opening on Broadway on Wednesday, April 10, 2012.

Let's start by giving credit to the producers of "Magic/Bird," which opened Wednesday at the Longacre, for a brave attempt at Broadway alchemy, seeking at least temporarily to turn sports fans into theater fans -- and vice versa.

It began 18 months ago with "Lombardi," about the late Green Bay Packers coach, a modest business and critical success that starred Lindenhurst's own Dan Lauria, ran for 244 performances and earned a Tony nomination for Judith Light.

Now, Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser are back with another 90- minute, one-act play that has advantages and disadvantages over its predecessor. The good news includes engaging production touches featuring video of the real Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, stars of the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry of the 1980s. It also helps that Johnson and Bird were available to aid producers, actors and playwright in getting details right.

But the fact that Johnson and Bird are very much with us and that their stories are relatively recent -- the play begins with the final of the 1979 NCAA Tournament -- brings creative challenges.

Most of Lauria's audience only knew Lombardi from archival footage; he died in 1970. Most of the audience for "Magic/Bird" knows the principals well. In fact, both men were scheduled to be sitting in it Wednesday.

Thus, small flaws stand out, such as Kevin Daniels' voice being too deep to capture Johnson's familiar, high-pitched, almost singsong tone.

And avid fans over 40 likely will not learn much new about the complex -- and well-documented -- relationship between seeming opposites in everything from personality to background to race.

So, is "Magic/Bird" great theater? No, but given inherent limitations, the actors and writer Eric Simonson have done as well as they could have and crafted a show worth seeing. Tug Coker is particularly memorable as the laconic Bird, getting laughs with one-word deadpans. He also seems quite credible as a basketball player.

The other actors play multiple roles, highlighted by Francois Battiste's bizarre take on sportscaster Bryant Gumbel -- who is unlikely to be as amused as the audience was -- and Peter Scolari as Celtics president Red Auerbach.

As in "Lombardi," Simonson employs characters based on journalists for expository purposes, with a lighter touch this time.

By the end, after the 1992 Olympics, the show gets us where we need to be: understanding and appreciating one of sports' more enduring and unusual friendships.

WHAT "Magic/Bird"

WHERE Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.

INFO $31.50-$126.50; 800-432-7250;

BOTTOM LINE On point, but not a slam dunk

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