BWW Reviews: BRONX BOMBERS Still Bushleague Material
Playwright Eric Simonson surprised a lot of Gotham theatregoers with his premiere Broadway effort, Lombardi; not only writing a solid theatre piece about the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, but giving it a universal spin that could be appreciated by those who wouldn't know football from futball.
What's most surprising about his newest sports play, Bronx Bombers, is that it moved to Broadway after a lackluster Off-Broadway reception without much in the way of improvements. While a play with actors effectively impersonating a century's worth of New York Yankee greats - from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter - centered around one of this town's most beloved sports figures, Yogi Berra, seems like a good bet to attract commercial attention, Simonson's weakly-scripted narrative only scratches the surface of the subject's most interesting issue; the loss of innocence that changed the way fans saw the national pastime when they discovered that player loyalty had become a reward granted to the highest bidder.
Baseball fans who can fill in the unexplained points of the plot with their own knowledge will understand the play. Yankee fans satisfied with celebrating the legacy of their favorite team for a couple of hours should have great time. But those with little more than a passing knowledge of the history of the game will most likely be left wondering what all the fuss is about.
The year is 1977 and the arbitration case of '75 that struck down baseball's reserve clause, which for nearly 100 years gave players no choice in who they played for and kept salaries relatively low, was suddenly making millionaires of the game's biggest stars as teams competed to sign the best free agents.
One of those newly wealthy athletes was Reggie Jackson, hard-slugging outfielder who led the Oakland A's to three straight World Series victories and then in the winter of '76 signed with the New York Yankees for nearly three million dollars a season.
On a June afternoon in Boston, during a nationally televised game against the Red Sox, Yankee manager Billy Martin thought Jackson wasn't hustling on an outfield play and sent in a replacement in the middle of the inning; an action that was taken to be an attempt to publicly humiliate him as punishment.
1977 was a tense year of racial unrest in the Yankees' home borough of the Bronx and the appearance that a famous and popular black player was being "put in his place" by his white manager made the incident even more controversial. When Jackson returned to the dugout, the hot-tempered Martin was seen lunging at him, having to be restrained by his coaches.
One of those coaches was Yogi Berra, arguably the greatest catcher in baseball history and a fan favorite for his humble immigrant roots and colorful way of turning a phrase. (A typical Yogi-ism: "I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous.") The first act takes place the next morning in Yogi's hotel room, where he's set up a meeting between himself, Martin, Jackson and team captain Thurman Munson.
While waiting for Jackson to arrive, the conversation turns to what they all regard as the Yankee Tradition. Winners of more championships than any other team in American professional sports, the legend of the Yankees is built around decades of acquiring an elite class of ballplayers who publically downplay personal glory for the sake of the team and always present themselves as clean-cut gentlemen who take the business of winning very seriously.
But when Jackson does arrive, only squeezing in time in between other appointments, he makes it clear that he has other ideas about how to carry himself as a ballplayer. Major League Baseball was changing from being a pastime celebrating great teams to a business promoting great players.
The second act begins with what looks like a scene out of Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls. In what we can only assume to be Yogi Berra's imagination, an assemblage of Yankee greats from the past and present gather around a large banquet table to shoot the breeze, compare their careers and, again, discuss what it means to be a Yankee.
There's the bombastic Babe (C.J. Wilson) loaded up with hooch and assuming the starry-eyed Jeter (Christopher Jackson) is a member of the club's Negro League namesake. Slick, corporate Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), the only player dressed in a suit, looks down his nose at his center field successor, good ol' boy Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes), who blames an injury sustained from an on-field collision with DiMaggio as the reason he played in pain throughout his career. In the first act, Dawes is a ringer for Thurman Munson, portraying him as a conservative, dignified family man.
Francois Battiste, who played Reggie Jackson as a level-tempered, flashy self-promoter in the first act (contrasting with Keith Nobbs' tense, emotional Billy Martin) doubles as the quiet team player Elston Howard, who, looking back at his career as the Yankees' first black player, resents the fact that his achievements are not recognized as widely as those of his white colleagues.
But no matter their differences, everyone (except the Babe) stands in awe of the great gentleman Lou Gehrig (shy and polite John Wernke), showing signs of the ALS that will strike him down early in life.
Peter Scolari, who was not a member of the Off-Broadway cast, is less of a replica of the man he portrays than his castmates, but he nails Berra's squat posture and the mumbly growl of a voice. Simonson builds the role on many of his classic quotes ("That's a record that will stand until it's broken." / "What time is it, Yogi?" "You mean now?") but the paper-thin part gives the actor little of interest to do.
Scolari's real-life spouse, Tracy Shayne, is another new addition to the company as Yogi's gracious wife Carmen Berra. Their affection for each other and teamwork as a couple is very sweet.
The final scene takes place before the ceremony for the final game at the original Yankee Stadium, where there's an emotional passing of the torch, but Bronx Bombers, under the author's direction, plays more like a theme park attraction than serious theatre.