By Paul Ferrante
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not a New York City kind of guy. Although I always end up enjoying my visits there, they are few and far between.
Likewise with Broadway plays. Sure, I’ve done the school trip thing with my students, but for a night out in the Big Apple, my wife has to bribe me. That’s why the last play I saw with her – until the other day, that is – was a revival of Damn Yankees some years back (loved it). You can imagine my surprise, then, when Maria presented me with a Christmas gift of two tickets to the new drama Bronx Bombers at the Circle in the Square Theater on Jan. 11.
The play, from the producers of such sports-themed productions as Lombardi and Magic/Bird, had been getting a lot of hype on local airwaves for the last month, and it was made clear that both the Yankees and Major League Baseball had given their full blessing to the project.
Still, I had mixed feelings going in. First, I’m one of those detail freaks who chafe at the sight of historical inaccuracy in sports movies and plays. For example, though I love the film Field of Dreams, I can’t discount the fact that Ray Liotta’s Joe Jackson is not a good old Southern boy but a right-hand hitting guy with a flat accent. (D.B. Sweeney in Eight Men Out was much more convincing.) And would the uniforms and equipment be correct? As a collector, I actually worry about such stuff. I know, it’s silly. It’s the story that counts. But still . . . you’re reading Sports Collectors Digest here, not Entertainment Weekly!
So, when I heard that the drama would have none other than Lawrence Peter Berra as its main character and would include such luminaries of Yankee lore as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Billy Martin and Derek Jeter, I was skeptical. What premise could possibly bring all of these people from the past 100 years together and make it believable? Could the actors, some of whom would be playing dual roles, pull it off? And, finally, since I’m sure permission to portray these men had to be secured from both the living ones and the families of the deceased, would the script be some kind of fawning tribute that would make even the most diehard pinstriped fan cringe in embarrassment?
There was only one way to find out, because as Yogi supposedly said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” And so, on a rainy January morning (ironically, the same day Alex Rodriguez would be issued a full season ban by MLB) my wife and I climbed aboard a Metro-North train and took the ride down into the city in search of the Bronx Bombers.
Before our trip I’d gone on the play’s official website and learned a few things. One was that our own Marty Appel, whom you’ll remember was the Yankees public relations director during the early Bronx Zoo years, would be doing an audience talkback after a future performance. That immediately lent credibility to the play, for me, anyway. Also, Steiner Sports, the official collectibles outlet for most of Yankeedom, would be displaying memorabilia in the lobby of the theater – another positive.
Actor-wise, the only personality I was familiar with would be the man playing Yogi – Peter Scolari, whom I remembered as Tom Hanks’ sidekick on the 1980s sitcom Bosom Buddies, with stints on other TV shows such as Newhart and The West Wing, as well as a prodigious stage career. This guy was going to be Yogi Berra? Hmm. Also, his new real-life bride, Tracy Shayne, a veteran of stage and screen, would be playing Yogi’s beloved wife Carmen, the only female in the production. The other cast members I’d never heard of, which was probably a good thing. That way I went in with an open mind.
One disclaimer, though, to keep in mind from this point on: Though I have had the pleasure of being introduced to the wonderful world of literary criticism through my novels, I am not an experienced drama reviewer, nor do I play one on TV. But I’ll give it a shot, so bear with me, baseball fans.
Circle in the Square, which also houses an acting school, is a neat place to watch a play. It seats around 800, and it’s the equivalent of Wrigley or Fenway – cozy and intimate. (You knew I had to get the Stadia references in there.) Unlike those two ballparks, however, there isn’t a bad seat in the house, as its closed horseshoe shape gives all the patrons a good view, and the acoustics are superb. The actors, as well, play to this configuration by moving around so everyone feels like they have a front row seat.
The upstairs lobby, which houses the ticket windows, was festooned with huge posters of the cast in their Yankee garb, as well as the caricature artwork reproduced on the Playbill. Cooperstown Collection home Yankee jerseys from different eras were hung from the rafters. (I was delighted to see that the Yankees from different times in the play wore uniforms appropriate to their eras, down to the sleeve patches of Gehrig, DiMaggio and Jeter.) As many of the patrons – mostly a middle-aged audience – were sporting Yankee hats and jackets, you almost forgot you were going to a Broadway play. Definitely not a wine and cheese crowd.
Proceeding downstairs to where you enter the theater (kind of like the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis . . . couldn’t resist) the lobby walls were decorated with huge black-and-white vintage photos of the Yankee greats who were to be portrayed in the play. A cool touch was that the risers of the staircase leading up to the second floor had been stenciled with some of Yogi’s greatest quotes (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”) so you could read them as you ascended. Steiner Sports’ influence was everywhere. Many fixtures from the “old” Stadium were on hand, including two lockers, a long row of plastic seats upon which playgoers could sit and glass cases that housed vials of dirt, signs and autographed baseballs and seat backs. There were also exclusive Bronx Bombers fitted hats and sized T-shirts in Yankee midnight blue and white, for a reasonable $20 apiece. All were officially licensed by MLB.
Anyway, by the time I got into the actual theater and was handed my Playbill magazine, I was in total baseball mode. Our seats, about halfway up where the curve of the horseshoe meets the straightaway ($$$) section, were fine. It was time for some drama, Yankee style!
OK, before I begin, note this: The play I saw is still in previews, with the official opening a couple weeks away, and they might still be doing some editing, though I doubt the storyline or the dialogue will change that radically.
Act one begins the day after the tumultuous “Game of the Week” Saturday afternoon fiasco of June 18, 1977, when the Yankees’ volatile manager, Billy Martin, pulled superstar right fielder Reggie Jackson from a game in Fenway Park for what he considered loafing after a ball. (Sadly, his replacement, whom Martin sent out with the unenviable task of relaying the message to the stunned Jackson, Paul Blair, passed away only weeks ago, as noted in SCD.)
Berra, Martin’s most trusted coach, whose career in the Yankee organization had by that point spanned four decades, arranges a peace summit in a room at the Boston hotel where the Yankees are staying. As can be expected, things are going haywire over this very public humiliation of the Yankees – and of Reggie – in the ballpark of their most hated rival. Berra tries to negotiate a truce between the paranoid, barely coherent Martin and the egotistical, brash Jackson by asking the Yankee captain, the grumpy Thurman Munson, to intervene. Well, the entire attempt falls flat. Munson does not relish the role of go-between and still harbors resentment for Jackson over Reggie’s unflattering comments toward him in a spring training Sport magazine article, as well as his own perceived under-appreciation by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Martin, who manages to raid Yogi’s minibar during the conversation, is nearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown over his star player’s refusal to kowtow to the manager’s absolute authority, and Reggie is caught up in the “magnitude” of himself.
But here’s where I was pleasantly surprised. In the heated exchanges between Martin/Jackson and Jackson/Munson – some laced with expletives – there were references to some notable pieces of Yankee dirty laundry: Martin’s implication in (and resultant trade to Kansas City) the famed Copacabana incident of 1957, for which he never forgave his mentor, Casey Stengel, for turning his back on him; Jackson’s cold shoulder treatment from his Yankee mates that Munson, the team captain, failed to smooth over; and Munson’s observation that Jackson was in a way envious of Munson’s family life and comfort within his own skin, and was trying to fill his personal void with money.
Through all of this, Yogi establishes himself as part philosopher, part peacemaker, a man whom all combatants respect and genuinely like. Of course, he has his own (often humorous) way of making his point, which takes the edge off. So, when this intense 30-minute segment ends, the viewer is left wondering what will happen to this combustible situation. (Except, of course, if you know baseball history, because then you know that Martin and Jackson will never really resolve their differences, which would lead to Martin’s first Yankee firing the following season, despite winning the 1977 World Series; and that Munson, his body and spirit depleted by the circus atmosphere and desire to be closer to his family, will die in a plane crash two years later.)
The next scene takes place at Yogi’s home, where his wife, Carmen, in their queen-sized bed, is lowered from the ceiling on a large platform which, besides the bed, contains the rest of a bedroom set. Here’s where the plot gets a little hazy. Carmen, witty, understanding and loving, tries to counsel Yogi, who feels he’s failed in correcting the impasse between Martin and Jackson, while revealing that Steinbrenner has even felt him out about assuming the reins of the team should he fire Martin. Carmen talks him through this and goes to sleep, but not before Babe Ruth appears to Yogi (who thinks he’s cracking up) as a vision and tells him everything’s going to be OK.
Intermission time. But this presented a problem. As I learned when my daughter was acting in and directing her high school plays, a stage production – even a small one – is a formidable undertaking. From props to “blocking” to coaching the actors in delivering their lines, it entails quite an effort. And there are bumps in the road. During this second performance of the “preview” stage, one such bump occurred. The huge bedroom set platform that had been lowered from the ceiling by four cables could not be raised during the intermission. What to do? After an extra 20 minutes of troubleshooting, the director and tech crew elected to release the cables, put the entire platform on dollies, and roll it to the farthest corner of the stage, where “the bedroom” would have to remain for the rest of the play. But it did provide a moment of levity when Babe Ruth, making his entrance for the next scene (the dining room) ad libbed, “nice bed!” as he passed by.
The first scene of Act II, at first unclear to me, is a dream sequence. Yogi awakens to find Carmen, in a festive party dress, preparing for a large “Old-Timers Day” dinner party. But for which era? Is it still 1977?
As it turns out, no. From what I could ascertain, it’s the night before the closing of the “old” Stadium in 2009, and the Berras are hosting a gathering of “Yankee old-timers.” Yogi, in his pajamas, is running around like a madman, trying to help Carmen set the dinner table. Then, instead of “old-timers,” Yankee All-Timers start showing up. First, there’s Elston Howard, in a 1960s suit, who fondly reminisces with the man he replaced as Yankee catcher. (Why he was not in uniform escapes me.) Then comes Lou Gehrig, seemingly hale and hearty; Mickey Mantle, practically busting out of his home flannels; dapper Joe DiMaggio, who looks like he’s just come from a night out on the town in 1950s New York; Derek Jeter, fresh-faced in his doubleknits; and finally, the Bambino himself, a raccoon coat over his Yankee duds, chomping on a stogie and hefting a case of booze. Yogi is continuously amazed as each new visitor arrives, and, with Carmen’s help, does his best to facilitate the introductions of the living and dead.
It all starts out smoothly enough, but then, as the dinner guests discuss “the Yankee way” we have another airing out session. The usually humble Howard complains of the treatment he tacitly endured as the Yankees’ first black player. Ruth and Gehrig get into it over Lou’s mother’s supposed snub of the Babe’s second wife over the treatment of their stepdaughter, and the two sluggers’ ensuing estrangement. (The whole time Ruth and Mantle are pounding drinks, and the viewer is left to imagine the possibilities if these two party animals ever hung out in real life.) Ruth ruminates over the lack of love and affection he received from his parents, and Gehrig becomes physically weaker almost by the minute until he trips and falls near the end of the party. But the most explosive moments are supplied by Mantle and his predecessor, DiMaggio, whom the Mick characterizes as a cold, unfriendly aristocrat who despises his clownish ways. It comes to a head – and, incredibly, almost to blows – when Mantle accuses DiMaggio of purposely allowing him to injure himself in the 1951 World Series through a missed communication on an outfield fly ball. The expletives are really flying now (Mickey even drops the dreaded initials of the Yankee Clipper’s former wife – a real no-no), and in a rare display of emotion, DiMaggio accuses Mantle of the ultimate crime: Not acting like a true Yankee. Jeter, who is in awe of everyone in his midst (drinking a soda pop, naturally) tries to take it all in. A funny moment presents itself when Ruth, upon making the acquaintance of Jeter and Howard, asks if they play for the New York Black Yankees of the Negro League. Another memorable line is Gehrig’s astonishment that there was a second World War. As always, the harried Berra tries to put out the fires and make everybody play nice, and by the end of the evening all the dinner guests do iron things out, realizing that they are all part of the Yankee continuum, and that all that really matters is your play on the field.
The final scene is touching. Berra, being interviewed by a young reporter prior to the “closing” ceremonies of the Old Stadium in 2009, meets up with the middle-aged Jackson, and they reminisce in front of Munson’s preserved locker. Reggie, who now has the wisdom of an older man, realizes the bond he shared with the fallen captain. And, in his last act as the “flag bearer of the Yankees,” if you will, Yogi cedes his role as deliverer of the Stadium’s final closing speech to Jeter, thereby passing the torch to the next generation.
At first, I really didn’t think Peter Scolari could pull off a credible incarnation of Yogi Berra. Who could? He’s one-of-a-kind, a true American original. But as the play went along, he seemed to morph into Yogi. The mannerisms seemed realistic, especially when he was in uniform near the end. Remember, though, that in real life, one of the most quoted Americans to ever live only speaks in soundbites, even when he was briefly the Yankee manager in 1984 (which, by the way, is never mentioned, as is his subsequent long-running feud with Steinbrenner), which makes some of the longer monologues a bit of a stretch. But he gets it done, and Tracy Shayne is a wonderful Carmen; they appear as loving a couple as the real Mr. and Mrs. Berra.
After that, it’s hit and miss. C.J. Wilson was a big, believable Babe, in all his boisterous glory. John Weinke, to me, seemed a little too fresh-faced for Lou, and perhaps a bit slight in stature to be the Iron Horse. Keith Dobbs, who doubled as Billy Martin and the young reporter at the end, was too young for the haggard skipper of 1977, despite nailing Martin’s own faux-Southern drawl and loud cowboy attire. Chris Henry Coffey gave me pause as Joe D. Yeah, he looked great in a 1950s suit, but he was too “All-American” looking (I am one of those guys who goes to Beatlemania and expects the foursome to look like the actual people, sorry) and didn’t convince me, despite his replication of the legendary DiMaggio cool. Christopher Jackson, who doubles as the bellhop in Berra’s 1977 hotel room and Derek Jeter, does a credible job of capturing his aura and looks great in a uniform. Francois Battiste probably had the toughest task by playing both Ellie Howard and Reggie Jackson. Yes, the makeup people varied his hairstyle (he really looked like Reggie when decked out in designer sunglasses and mod ’70s attire) but he sounded annoyingly similar as both men when delivering his lines. And believe me, these guys are very different.
But my favorite, besides Scolari, was Bill Dawes as Thurman Munson/Mickey Mantle. As Munson, looking rumpled with a scraggly wig and Fu Manchu mustache, Dawes was thoroughly believable as the dour, gruff catcher. But he took it to another level as The Mick. From the way he filled out his pinstripes to his facial expressions, mannerisms and drawl, I could swear he was the Commerce Comet reincarnated. He could play the buffoon or reveal the inner sadness of the man as Mickey laments his misspent personal life. By the last scene, where he’s casually leaning on a bat, I was totally convinced.
If Bronx Bombers could be translated into baseball terms, I wouldn’t call it a home run, nor a strikeout. I think it’s more like a ground rule double. You’re happy with it, but are left wondering “What if?” But then, I’m a hard marker. Would I recommend it? Most definitely. If you’re a casual fan you might be lost on some of the historical references and anecdotes, but if you want to get a sense of what impact the New York Yankees have had on the American consciousness, you can’t go wrong by checking it out. Because you can observe a lot by just watching.