Outfit’s basketball play ‘Flex’ double dribbles

Generally speaking, sports-related stories aren’t the easiest to pull off in the context of a stage play. That’s probably one reason why so many of them seem to unfold in locker rooms or dugouts, because how else would a theater be able to logistically and authentically replicate a football field, baseball diamond, tennis court, golf course, swimming pool or racetrack?

The Alliance did a remarkable job depicting the action scenes in its baseball drama “Toni Stone” earlier this year. So did Theatrical Outfit with its 2018 production of “The Royale,” in which the centerpiece of the set was a bona fide boxing ring. And Horizon designed a practice field for an indoor high school girls’ soccer team in “The Wolves” (2019).

An additional hurdle to clear for the directors of such shows is finding the right actors for the roles, especially if it requires legitimate athletic ability. A lot of times, characters will stand on the sidelines merely commenting on whatever match they’re watching as it takes place from beyond the stage, just out of view of the audience. But, in other cases, like “The Wolves,” the cast had to actually play soccer — at least to a degree that made it appear that they could.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford Photography

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford Photography

Celebrated director and choreographer Patdro Harris, who staged that stirring “Royale” for the Outfit, is back at the helm for the company’s new basketball-themed “Flex,” a world premiere co-produced with the Arkansas-based TheatreSquared (which mounted it earlier this summer). Written by Candrice Jones, the play details the challenges and aspirations of various members of a 1990s girls’ basketball team at a Black high school in rural Arkansas.

The scenic design by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay features a slick, functional court in the school’s gym. And, except for Andrea Gooden, who portrays their maternal coach, an agile acting ensemble shoots their fair share of hoops in the show: Hailey Elizabeth (excellent as the ambitious team captain), Kenisha Johnson, Whitney Nelson, India S. Tyree and Aminah Williams. Director Harris’ choreographic talents serve him well during their many action scenes, with an assist from basketball consultant Kiesha Brown.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford Photography

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford Photography

Jones structures “Flex” in four quarters, spanning the course of the school year. With a regional tournament and ultimately the state championship in their sights, some of the Lady Train teammates hope to earn possible athletic scholarships from college recruiters, while others dream of attracting talent scouts to see them play, hopefully with offers of WNBA contracts to follow.

Those pivotal games are relayed via the usual theatrical methods in sports stories — with lots of after-the-fact, play-by-play exposition and mostly meaningless statistics, occasional slow-motion pantomime reenactments, and generous contributions from production designers Bradley Bergeron (lights and projections), and particularly Christopher Lane, whose complex sound design covers everything from the roar of the crowds to the hushed free-throw swish of a net.

Can the Lady Train underdogs prevail in the deciding final? Before we can reach the inevitable answer, playwright Jones forces “Flex” out of bounds with a lot of heavy-handed diversions intended to impart a message about team loyalty and betrayal and spirit. There’s the pregnancy (and abortion plans) of one player, and another’s sordid scheme to disqualify her main rival on the team. There’s inordinate talk about unseen boyfriends and family members. Most time-consumingly, a fourth teammate, a self-professed “youth minister,” pressures the rest of them into a group baptism to cleanse their sins.

We have only the ever-endearing Tyree to thank for keeping that last character from feeling off-putting, and also for providing a lovely musical interlude with her impromptu rendering of the spiritual “This Train (Is Bound for Glory).”

As for that Lady Train, the team might be predictably bound for glory, as well, even though Jones’ shifts in focus, while not a total foul, have a derailing effect. “Flex” puts points on the board in its basketball scenes, but the play figuratively misses more often than it scores.


THEATER REVIEW

“Flex”

Through Oct. 2. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $15-$65. Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500. www.theatricaloutfit.org.

Bottom line: Almost as much about spiritual cleansing by baptism as it is about team spirit in basketball.