By: David Sheward
After covering football with Lombardi and basketball in Magic/Bird, playwright-director Eric Simonson steps up to the plate for baseball in his new work Bronx Bombers, now at Circle in the Square after an Off-Broadway run at Primary Stages earlier in the season. He hits a solid single, but gets caught off base while trying to steal home. If you’re a fan of the New York Yankees, this show is definitely for you, but if you’re not an aficionado of the national pastime, the second word of the title may be a bit too apt.
The play begins promisingly. In June 1977, coach Yogi Berra, the Yankees’ malaprop-spouting former catcher, is desperately attempting to heal a potentially fatal rift in his beloved ball club. During a game with their arch rivals, the Boston Red Sox, Yankee manager Billy Martin and star hitter Reggie Jackson have just had a dugout brawl in front of millions of fans. Berra has called the antagonists along with team captain Thurman Munson to his Beantown hotel suite to settle the matter calmly before it gets to the suits in the front office. Jackson is a phenomenally talented player, but he refuses to mold his personality and attitude to be a part of Martin’s team. He’s the reason the fans are showing up, so why should he conform to Martin’s restrictive playing schedule?
This is a meaty, fascinating set-up: a single room, fiery conflict, everybody with their own agenda. Somebody’s gotta win, somebody’s gotta lose. Even if you’re not obsessed with baseball history, you want to know who’s gonna come out on top. But this is just the first scene of the first act. Immediately afterwards, Simonson takes a turn into The Twilight Zone. After the Boston sequence, we find ourselves in Berra’s bedroom in New Jersey where he and his wife, Carmen, are coping with a lawn full of potatoes (don’t ask) and worries over the team’s declining morale. Their dialogue is interrupted by the ghost of Babe Ruth. Then after intermission, Simonson springs a jock version of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls where, instead of feminist icons sharing a lunch with the heroine, Yogi and Carmen are hosting a dinner party with Yankee greats of the past and present.
Simonson briskly and evenly stages the action in the oval-shaped Circle in the Square, while the cast brings much energy and wit to the exercise. Peter Scolari wisely doesn’t condescend to Berra, honestly portraying his rough wisdom and delivering his mangled aphorisms with a straight face ("I may be nostalgic, but I don’t like to live in the past" is a prime example). C.J. Wilson has a bear-like charm as Babe Ruth, while Chris Henry Coffey is suavely cool as Joe DiMaggio. Francois Battiste skillfully captures Reggie Jackson’s swagger and the humble pride of Elston Howard, the Yankees’ first African-American player. Similarly Bill Dawes gets two totally different portrayals-the tired but reasonable Munson and the cocky Mickey Mantle.
There are plenty of anecdotes and much sports trivia, but the Martin-Jackson contretemps, the driving action of the first act, is never fully resolved. The play ends with a coda in 2008 as Berra attends the final ceremony before Yankee Stadium is torn down and we learn in passing that the antagonists patched up their differences. It’s an unsatisfying ending to a loose love letter to a New York institution. Maybe fervent Yankee fans will provide enough of an audience to keep the show running the bases for a few months, but don’t expect Bronx Bombers to last beyond the Tony Award playoffs.
Opened Feb. 6 for an open run. Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission, $67-137, (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photos: Joan Marcus
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