Bottom of the Ninth in 1977Culture Watch
tags: play reviews, Bronx Bombers
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
Circle in the Square Theater
235 W. 50th Street
New York, N.Y.
On June 18, 1977, during a Yankee-Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park, Yankee star Reggie Jackson was unceremoniously pulled out of game for begin lazy while chasing a Jim Rice line drive to right field. He ran to the dugout and charged at manager Billy Martin, starting the mostly highly publicized fight since Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in 1941. The scuffle was captured by television cameras and has been played again at least 56 billion times since then. It immortalized both men in a notorious fashion. Fans immediately took sides, championing the feisty Martin or the flashy, egomaniacal Jackson. The press treated it like World War III.
Much of the play Bronx Bombers, by Eric Simonson, is the behind the scenes look at the aftermath of that story. Former catcher Yogi Berra, that day a coach, decided to play peacemaker to Martin and Jackson and called a meeting at a midtown Manhattan hotel between the pair and Yankee captain Thurman Munson. The four argued all afternoon; Martin feared that he would be fired.
Later in the play, Berra had a dream in which the legendary Yanks of old – Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Elston Howard and (contemporary) Derek Jeter -- returned to offer their opinions on the scuffle.
Yankee fanatics, and there are millions of them in New York, and any baseball fan, will love Bronx Bombers. The first act is a gutsy, insightful and nicely staged look at the ballplayers struggling to fix their problem. Act two is an improbable but delightful ‘tribute’ dream to the Yankees, and all of baseball. The theme of the play is that despite the ballplayers’ problems on the field, scuffles then and drugs today, Americans will always love the Yankees and always love baseball. The game transcends all.
The play has some weak hitting and questionable pitching, but it is still a solidly hit double off the wall in center field. It opened happily just before baseball spring training starts.
Those who do not love baseball, though, will be a bit mystified by the drama, especially in the second act, where the great ballplayers return triumphantly and tell their stories. You must love the game and treasure the lore to enjoy the play.
The play has its problems. The tribute to the old time stars in act two is a bit schmaltzy. Nobody could be as heroic as these players are portrayed. The second act suffers from a lack of drama, too, despite some sonorous blustering by Babe Ruth, and at times you wonder how it connects to the first act (it does not). You learn all about the often told story of Lou Gehrig’s illness and Babe Ruth’s drinking, but little about Mickey Mantle’s battle with cancer. You wonder how on earth Yogi Berra’s wife Carmen became such a star of the Yankees in act two. You also wonder whatever happened to act one.
Overall, though, Bronx Bombers is a solid look at sports history and a much heralded dugout brawl in 1977 between two of the game’s most legendary stars and a nice tribute to Yankee greats of days gone by.
What is just uncanny about the play is the way that the actors have captured the personalities of the ballplayers. John Wernke is a striking Lou Gehrig, right down to the way he stares down at the ground and runs his hand over his chin. Peter Scolari’s Yogi Berra is just perfect, down to his fabled “Yogi-isms” (mangled language) and the way he walks. Francois Battiste as Reggie is, well, Reggie. How big was Reggie in the 70s? Hey, he had his own candy bar. Bill Dawes as Mickey Mantle is a tough as nails Oklahoma slugger. The best is Keith Nobbs as Billy Martin, who scampers all over the stage and even wears his fabled cowboy hat.
There is a lot of sports history in the play. The players recount the integration of baseball and the growth of salaries. There is a sprightly exchange between the old timers and the younger players over the dizzy salaries paid to players today versus the money the Yankees of long ago earned. There is a lot of material on the mercurial history of the Yankees, starting in the early 1920s. The audience will learn much about the huge changes in baseball that took place in the ‘70s.
In the play, ballplayers remind the audience that the trouble the Yankees had in the 1970s reflected the troubles that New York and all of America endured – skyrocketing crime, disagreements over Vietnam, Civil Rights and student unrest.
Theatergoers will be stunned by the way the Circle in the Square has been transformed into Yankee Stadium by set designer Beowulf Boriti. Three quarters of the ceiling over the stage is a replica of the famous Yankee grandstand façade and there is a huge Yankee emblem in the middle of the stage. The lobby has been transformed into a ballpark with enormous black and white photos of Yankee stars from Ruth to Jackson. As you walk through the lobby you expect somebody to throw a bag of peanuts at you.
Whether you love the Yankees or hate them (as many do), you will enjoy this terse look at them over thirty long years ago. The play has its ups and downs (and too many tributes), but it is enjoyable.
PRODUCTION: Produced by Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo in association with the Yankees and Major League Baseball Properties. Set Design : Beowulf Boriti, Costumes: David C. Wodlard, Lighting: Jason Lyons, Sound: Lindsay Jones. Eric Simonson directed the play. Open ended run.
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