Bronx Bombers by Eric Simonson, directed by the playwright
Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St., Manhattan, New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
Let’s face it: sports are better than theater. Every day and night, pro and amateur athletes, in major and minor leagues, take genuine risks, putting their bodies, their whole selves, out there, putting it all on the line. In sports, reputations are made and ruined in a game; healthy, seemingly invincible stars are frequently, seriously, injured and carted off the field. The crowd sits on the edge of its seat, rapt, watching to see if it’s a pass or run, if he’ll shoot or drive in, take the pitch or swing away. The audience gasps with excitement, curses in disappointment and yells out helplessly in surprise. People playing and watching remember the outcomes, the wins and losses, for many years, their whole lives. In sports, everything is spontaneous and something is at stake. Almost one hundred thousand people attended this year’s Rose Bowl. Over one hundred million watched the Super Bowl on TV, and it was a lousy game.
On the other side, today’s theater, with a finite audience and various kinds of inhibiting pressures, tends to wilt and play it safe. Producers, directors, and playwrights, afraid of alienating the remaining few who can fork over the exorbitant price of a Broadway or Off-Broadway ticket, adhere to the conventionality of political correctness, coddling their customers. In boxing, a man is hit hard, and the opponent advances towards him, trying to finish him off. In new plays, nothing much is dared or threatened. A play shoots a jab at the audience, and, before long, pulls its punch, softening even that blow. Sports has become a multi-billion dollar business. Most plays lose money; in theaters across New York, you can easily count the house.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Hamlet wondered whether all of us might be better off dead. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine imprisoned his vanquished enemy in a cage and carted it from town to town for all to see. Mrs. Solness of Ibsen’s Master Builder accidentally poisoned her twins with her breast milk. All-American salesman Willy Loman wrapped his car around a tree. The medium, at one time, had its own temerity and guts. It was the adult popular art form, attended by people from all backgrounds, education and financial status. Theater faced reality, and helped us realize: all is not what it seems. It took on Conventional Wisdom; theater “turned over the rock,” providing entertainment and edification. While sports are ruthless, these days, theater is cringing, obsequious. Maybe sports are the new theater.
You might assume that theater would have regularly used sports stories as a way to deliver a hard-hitting message or tale. But interestingly, there’s rarely been a good major play about sports, or even all that many that dealt with the subject at all. Odets’ Golden Boy largely succeeded in replicating sports’ pitiless truth-telling; That Championship Season tried but was done in by bombastic overkill; Take Me Out used the topic as a jumping-off point for an exploration of racial and sexual mores. (Musicals have made lightweight attempts, including Damn Yankees, a ‘50s favorite, still revived today.)
But lately, some producers have been cautiously initiating a new series of plays focused on sports. Some of this—most?—is dollar-oriented: everyone loves an emerging market and statistics tell us that two-thirds of the theater audience is female, the sports audience primarily male. There’s an opportunity there, and in the last five years, a few productions have been sticking a toe in, trying to get the stubborn male audience to abandon for a night their video games, cable TV shows, booze, pot and porn, and their sports, and come see a play.
The author Eric Simonson has written several of these sports-themed shows in recent years. Lombardi, about famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, was a modest success on Broadway in 2010, and has played around the country. Magic/Bird, depicting the rivalry and friendship between basketball stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, closed quickly in 2012. Now Simonson has written and directed Bronx Bombers, about a feud in the past of the New York Yankees, and the play, which just opened on Broadway at the Circle in the Square, is partly produced by the Yankees and Major League Baseball.
Yes, the play sounds terrible, and the idea that it would be paid for by the people it is portraying is another suspicious sign. But by taking some chances, by studiously avoiding many of the pitfalls that threaten to doom it, the production manages to find a niche and defy its lowest expectations. It becomes likeable, off-beat entertainment.
The first act centers on a real-life incident in 1977: beloved, retired Yankee catcher and coach Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari) tries to mediate a dispute between erratic and volatile Yankee manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) and charismatic, newly acquired outfielder Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste). Martin and Jackson had engaged in a shoving match in the dugout when the manager pulled the player mid-game for not hustling. Berra calls a meeting in a Boston hotel with Martin, Jackson and respected catcher Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes), but this turns into a tense confrontation between Jackson and…everyone else. The player is one of a new group of athletes, brash and individualistic, making big money. Berra, old-school, devoted to the team, worries that the days of a disciplined, taciturn and proud Yankee tradition is waning; chaos can only result. The scene shifts to Berra at home with his devoted wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne) and he frets about what to do if Jackson, a master of manipulating the press, triumphs, and Martin is fired. He promises his wife that he will not take the position of manager if it is offered. Suddenly, a tormented Yogi has visions of the most renowned Yankee, Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson). Smoke fills the stage and the lights go out.
Act Two features Yogi’s long dream—the main event of the play—with Berra and Carmen hosting an elaborate dinner for celebrated Yankee heroes, including Mickey Mantle (Dawes); Elston Howard (Battiste) the Yankee’s first black player; dignified, doomed Lou Gehrig (John Wernke); Joe Dimaggio (Chris Henry Coffey); and Babe himself. As the Dream Berra worriedly tries to figure out where things are heading, if Yankee values will survive, the greatest modern Yankee, Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson), enters. The players, past and present, fight about their loyalties, performances, and legacies. The play ends with a scene in 2008, as the old Yankee Stadium is closing, and Yogi is interviewed by a reporter (Nobbs), before he is expected to make final remarks about the place to a sold-out house. Yogi modestly turns the speaking job over to Jeter. Finally, Gehrig, the Yankee with the most integrity, appears, watching over heir apparent Jeter. Yogi figures that, perhaps, what made the team special will continue.
Okay, it still sounds terrible. But the surreal aspect of the piece, and its misshapen structure, work for it. Scenes are too long and repetitive, the dramatic through-line fuzzes away, but something else takes its place: an element of unpredictability. What was surely going to be banal and sentimental is enjoyably weird. Simonson, keeping the actors moving in theater-in-the-round, gives the staging an effectively unstable feel, knocking the audience off-center.
Plus, the play’s thematic nature is strong. Sometimes, too strong, it should be noted, as the characters tend to hit the audience over the head with similar-style lines. But at least the author has something more challenging on his mind than selling Yankees seats for 2014 after a sub-par season where they missed the playoffs. (Which might have been the assignment from the producers.) Berra agonizes continually over the impermanence of Yankee tradition and this gradually dovetails and opens out into a more general theme about the fleeting quality of all dreams, systems, ideals, all life. The meeting at the hotel has amusement and energy, as Jackson, one of the first unabashedly rebellious and defiant African-American ballplayers, takes on Munson and Martin. The dream sequence is frequently bold, dark, and poignant: hard-drinking, troubled Mantle confronts his predecessor, haughty Dimaggio, and Babe Ruth ultimately dominates the events with his debauchery and provocations.
There is some reticence here. Most egregiously, it is never mentioned that later, Yogi Berra did, indeed, take the manager’s job, and after being cruelly and humiliatingly fired by boss George Steinbrenner in 1985, forsook the Yankees for fourteen years, refusing even to come to the ballpark. (He had been done poorly by the Yankees before, in 1964: he was fired after he managed the team to the pennant but lost the World Series in seven games.) Since Berra is our linchpin, this is a big omission. While the portrayals of the problems and challenges of Mantle, Jackson and Howard are sometimes sharp, we never get to the underbelly of the activities of the legendary pro players, the way Jim Bouton did in his early, groundbreaking Yankee memoir Ball Four, in the 1960s. Nor do we get the modernistic low-down grit of the book and TV film The Bronx Is Burning, depicting the team in the ‘70s. (Martin, given short shrift, is intriguing enough to merit a play all his own.) But this doesn’t sink the show, which stays afloat due to its verve, humor, and appealingly scattershot dramatization.
And its smart and able cast. The actors, most playing two parts—and seemingly impossible roles at that—really come through. Dawes is excellent as both Mantle and Munson, Battiste the same as Jackson and Howard. C.J. Wilson is raucous, hilarious and right-on as Ruth, and Nobbs, while too young and not as explosive or crazy as the real Billy Martin, does a fine job as the reporter at the close. Christopher Jackson is refreshingly direct and believable as Jeter. Scolari and Shayne provide a reliable anchor for the show. Scolari looks more like the late Yankee manager Dick Howser than Yogi, but he gives the role something deeper than the expected malaprops and crinkly wisdom. Shayne has feminine warmth and wisdom as Carmen.
It ain’t sports. But Bronx Bombers finds laughs in what could have been simply juvenile, audacity in what might have been staid and corn-ball. The show doesn’t make the diving catch; but it gets a glove on it.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. He has performed on Broadway and in many off-Broadway and regional productions. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He will serve as Visiting Playwright in July, 2014, at Heartland Theatre Company’s New Plays from the Heartland Midwest One-Act Play Competition.
Scott Klavan at Heartland Theatre Company
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