The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy
The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy by Allen Meyer & Michael Nowak
Off-Broadway by New York Deaf Theatre at the Gene Frankel Theatre
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
The most important things go unsaid in the revival of The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy, a dramatization of the career of a real-life deaf baseball player in the early days of the sport. First produced Off-Broadway in 1987, and now presented in a limited run by New York Deaf Theatre, the piece functions best when there is silence on the stage, or subtle suggestion, or mime. These atypical theatrical elements add notes of complexity, touchingly stifled emotion and, finally, an affecting, even profound ineffability; the play becomes reduced in delicacy and impact when the characters speak.
This intriguing contrast between speech and physicality, between overt expression and nuance, is fitting for a piece that deals with the difficulties of a man who soars when he plays a direct, unpretentious sport, where action is paramount, but shrinks when he has to navigate the cold and messy politics of team relationships, the tantalizing, treacherous male-female connection, and the harsh ignorance and bigotry of a late 19th century world where hearing is considered acceptably normal and deafness seen as a character failing and blight.
The play, written by Allen Meyer & Michael Nowak and directed by Marlee Koenigsberg, features in the lead role of William “Dummy” Hoy, the Artistic Director of New York Deaf Theatre, JW Guido. It utilizes both spoken lines and American Sign Language (ASL) in the performing and, for the first time in the show’s production history, Captioning; the entire text is projected clearly on a screen above the heads of the actors, in time with the words on stage. Throughout, this manner of portrayal creates a varied and unusual theatricality.
In the story, loosely based on actual events, Hoy, a cobbler by trade with a talent for the nascent pastime of baseball, having lost his hearing as a child, joins an Oshkosh, Wisconsin minor league team in the 1880s. At first, his teammates are caustic towards him and disrespectful about his condition; Hoy runs afoul of nasty player Tyler (Max Roll) and his sycophant, Mutt (Sam Ogilvie). But he is befriended by thoughtful Woodrow (John Maddaloni), a Shakespeare aficionado, and rooms with simple, sympathetic Tommy (Stephen Zuccaro), who loves his trumpet as much as his bat and glove. Hoy, a speedy and smart outfielder, is noticed by bright, appealing female journalist AC (Liarra Michelle), who interviews him. At the plate, unable to hear the umpire’s vocalized calls, he struggles to tell the “count,” balls and strikes. Soon, opposing pitchers take advantage of Hoy, employing the “quick pitch” to catch him off-guard and strike him out.
Gradually, Hoy’s undeniable talent makes him a star on the field; he develops an attraction to AC, herself suffering prejudice from male journalists who deride her attempts to join their ranks. Hoy embraces the nickname “Dummy” as a defiant badge of honor, but agonizes about his status in this new environment. He is periodically advised and criticized by a vision of his mother (Stacey Lightman) who presents the difficult options available to him as a deaf man in a hearing world: reject special consideration, and try to fit in? Or fight for specific and necessary assists, drawing attention to himself and his condition?
Hoy decides, getting the “judge” or umpire (Ben Prayz) to agree to add hand gestures to label balls and strikes, safe and out, the forerunners of today’s commonly used signals. But Hoy’s relationship with AC never reaches fruition, as she passes over love to leave town and pursue journalism. It is explained that Hoy eventually had a long and illustrious Major League career; though, puzzlingly, he was never elected to the Hall of Fame. In a final sequence, the scene shifts to 1961, where, during the World Series between the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds, Hoy, then 99 and the oldest living ex-major leaguer, makes a final public appearance. He would die months later.
There are rough edges in the production, many caused by the venue itself, the cramped and aged Gene Frankel Theatre, named after the late longtime respected director and teacher. The space is one of the last of New York’s modest old “storefront” theaters popular in the 1950s-70s, the heyday of the downtown Off-Off Broadway movement. But as the surrounding East Village area has become upscale and overbuilt, most of these spaces have long been razed; it has to be sadly said that the Frankel, with its obscured views and painfully tiny seats, gives one of the rare real arguments for gentrification. The cast of 12 gingerly maneuvers around the undersized playing area and director Koenigsberg has her hands full creating a sense of outdoor athletics and abandon in the dinginess. Group scenes sometimes overwhelm the audience’s eyes and ears.
But the young actors are committed and spirited. Roll, Ogilvie, Baltsar Beckeld, and Michelle as the reporter, are among those who offer charm and verve. Guido, as Hoy, is exceptional, conveying the strength, frustration, longing, pride and fear the baseball player feels as he bulls his way through prejudice to recognition. The sole deaf actor in the cast, he does it without saying a word: utilizing ASL, and non-verbal expressionism, Guido raises the level of the show several notches.
And the authors and director of Dummy Hoy excel in the scenes that marry theme and action, that reflect the weakness of conventional speech and sound to create meaning: the several sections during which the actors grow silent and we experience life as Hoy does; the halting, unconsummated pull between Hoy and AC; an episode of baseball cacophony where words are useless amidst the noise; the simple and sad moment when AC points to her skirt to tell Hoy why she cannot get her story about him published; the final hilarious scene in the 1961 radio booth wherein the announcer (Beckeld), directed by the hand movements of his manic sound engineer (Blake Wales), has to desperately pad his comments to fill time. These beautiful vignettes illustrate the power of the oblique, of stillness, of the implied rather than the explicit, Show rather than Tell, to lift us out of intellection and inhibiting judgment into the fluid freedom of the imagination, where the theater rightly lives.
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.
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