Review: BRONX BOMBERS Ain't Over 'Til It's Over
The average playgoer walking into The Duke on 42nd Street for playwright/director Eric Simonson's Bronx Bombers might just assume the pre-show recording they're listening to is just a radio broadcast of any old baseball game. But the savvy baseball fan walking in will hear the names being mentioned and eventually realize they're listening to the play-by-play of the infamous scar on the face of Yankee Pride known as The Billy/Reggie Game.
The year was 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 year.
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; a 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 the central character of Simonson's fantasy/drama. 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.
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 Yankees greats from the past and present, from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter, gather around a large dinner table to shoot the breeze, compare their careers and, again, discuss what it means to be a Yankee.
There's a bombastic Babe (C.J. Wilson) devouring hot dogs and assuming the starry-eyed Jeter (Christopher Jackson) is a member of the club's Negro League namesake. Slick, corporate Joe DiMaggio, 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 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.
Richard Topol was cast as Yogi Berra after rehearsals had already begun, replacing Joe Pantoliano. In recreating the essence of that colorful character, the stiffness of his Berra's physicality seems a bit artificial as compared with his fellow actors, but the sweet Yogi quirkiness and affection for his wife, Carmen (Wendy Makkena), are played with touching sympathy.
Simonson injects many classic Berra-isms into his conversation ("That's a record that will stand until it's broken." / "What time is it, Yogi?" "You mean now?") that Topol speaks with perfect sincerity.
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.
Baseball fans will certainly get a lot more of the subjects being referenced, but the main theme of the members of an institution trying to uphold its untarnished reputation despite cracks in the veneer is easily recognized. Still Bronx Bombers keeps rehashing the same point in different variations; heavy on sentiment, but thin on content.