In “Bronx Bombers,” a new play about the New York Yankees, Babe Ruth stands over a plate piled high with hot dogs at a dinner party given by Yogi Berra, and declares baseball “the best goddamn thing that ever happened to this country. It’s better than boxing or tennis or golf.”
“What about football,” asks Mickey Mantle, sitting next to Lou Gehrig and Derek Jeter.
“That hands me a laugh,” Babe replies. “Bunch a nincompoops running around smashing heads. Baseball’s America’s sport. How else can a kid like me come from nothing and play for the greatest team on the planet, in the greatest city in the world?”
People who agree with the Babe’s sentiment – especially “the greatest team on the planet” line– will surely find things to appreciate in “Bronx Bombers,” written and directed by Eric Simonson and presented by Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street. Yankee fans will surely enjoy the spot-on impersonations of the team’s legendary players. But “Bronx Bombers” is far from the best goddamn thing that ever happened Off-Broadway.
This is the third in a series of sports plays that Simonson has written for producers Fran Kirmser (credited as “conceiver”) and Tony Ponturo (“commissioner”). All of them have been well-acted; all smartly marketed – the producers partner with the sports themselves (in this case Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees )– and each of them close to dramatically inert.
Their first play, Lombardi, was a character portrait of a great football coach; their second, Magic/Bird, was a portrait of the rivalry and friendship between two great basketball players, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Now their third, Bronx Bombers, is an attempt at a portrait of an entire team. If “Bronx Bombers” exists in quality somewhere between “Lombardi,” which ran for seven months on Broadway, and “Magic/Bird,” which shut down after 37 performances, it is the most disappointing of the three, because it’s about baseball.
It might be difficult to name another play about football or basketball, but baseball and baseball players are a frequent subject for the stage. Damn, there’s even “Damn Yankees,” a famous musical specifically about the Yankees, as is Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning play, “Take Me Out” (although the team in his play is not explicitly named.) The Mile Square Theater, a professional company based in Hoboken (where, anybody from Hoboken will tell you, the first game of baseball was played in 1846), puts on new baseball plays every single year! You needn’t look hard for a baseball play; there’s another one starting tomorrow in Brooklyn, Sousepaw, A Baseball Story, billed as “a true story about the greatest pitcher you’ve never heard of.” These plays generally try to tell a good story, rather than just appeal to a niche demographic.
Simonson has chosen to present baseball and the Yankees basically in two scenes. The first 45 minutes take place at a Boston hotel room in 1977 where Yogi Berra (Richard Topol) has set up a meeting to try to broker the peace between Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) and Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs), a day after an incident notorious among Yankee fans: Martin, the Yankees manager, pulled Jackson from the game in the middle of an inning for fumbling a ball and allowing Boston Red Sox Jim Rice to make it to second base. Resentments emerge, allusions are made to how baseball has changed but how grateful they each remain to the game, but mostly the characters (including a fourth, team captain Thurman Munson, portrayed by Bill Dawes) reveal their vivid, familiar personality traits — high strung, drunken Billy, hip, self-regarding Reggie, tongue-tied Yogi: Talking admiringly of a particular accomplishment by Lou Gehrig on the field, Yogi says “That’s one record that will stand until it gets broken.”
The scene switches to the Berra household, where Carmen Berra (Wendy Makkenda) is preparing their annual old-timers dinner party. There are some light exchanges (there’s a running gag about potatoes), followed by talk of the tough times the Yankees, and New York City, are undergoing. Yogi, Yankees coach, suspects that owner George Steinbrenner will fire Billy Martin and hire Yogi as manager; his wife doesn’t want him to accept. Carmen tells Yogi to get to bed, things will look better in the morning. Suddenly, there is thunder and lightning, and ….Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson) appears. Blackout. Second Act: a dinner party with a century’s worth of Yankee greats– obviously Yogi’s dream.
The set-up is of the sort imagined in late-night collegiate bull sessions at the local bar. At such a dinner party, how would Lou Gehrig react to free agency, televised games, and million-dollar salaries? How would Joe DiMaggio feel about Reggie Jackson (who’s not present at the dinner party.)How would Babe react to the presence of the first black player ever on the team, Elston Howard (Battiste again)? How would the old-timers react when Derek Jeter tells them that the old Yankee Stadium will be torn down? The answer, judging by “Bronx Bombers,” is: not much. The playwright uses the occasion to provide some mildly entertaining stories and a few interesting biographical tidbits of the players, and to reveal some friendships and rivalries. Then he goes for the heartstrings — Lou Gehrig, portrayed as saint-like, starts stumbling, the beginnings of the disease (now called Lou Gehrig’s disease) that killed him.There is one more scene — the last game in Yankee Stadium, on September 21, 2008, and if that’s not enough to make a fan cry, a young reporter recalls how sad it was when Thurman Munson died in a plane crash. Some of the Yankees fans sitting around me were dabbing, not gagging.
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Written and directed by Eric Simonson
Scenic Design by Beowulf Borritt, Costume Design by David. C. Woolard, Lighting Design by Jason Lyons, and Original Music and Sound by Lindsay Jones.
Cast: Francois Battiste, Chris Henry Coffey, Bill Dawes, Christopher Jackson, Keith Nobbs, Joe Pantoliano and John Wernke
Bronx Bombers is scheduled to run through October 19