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Bronx Bombers

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bronx Bombers
Francois Battiste, C.J. Wilson, John Wernke, Chris Henry Coffey, Bill Dawes, and Keith Nobbs.
Photo by James Leynse.
If your family is the squabbling type, you might not cherish big holiday dinners. When political bombs get deployed, ancient histories are dredged up, and just asking for rolls can lead to a feud of Hatfield-McCoy proportions, it can be difficult to remember just why you're supposed to care about the people around you in the first place. Of the many things Eric Simonson has accomplished with his new play Bronx Bombers, which just opened at The Duke on 42nd Street in a Primary Stages production, evoking this feeling is the one that can be considered unequivocally successful.

Note I didn't say it was intentionally so. The first scene of the second act, and the most representative of the wayward evening as a whole, is actually structured as a mash note to the New York Yankees. It's 1977 and Yogi Berra (Richard Topol) and his wife Carmen (Wendy Makkena) are holding a dinner for Yankees present, past, and future. (No, you're not supposed to ask how.) Also in attendance: Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes), Elston Howard (Francois Battiste), Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), and Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson). But as the gang gathers around the dining room table to reminisce, bicker, and wax romantic about the team, the effect is less of a energetic but friendly fraternity than a Novocain-riddled documentary.

As with the rest of Bronx Bombers, the scene is ambitious and colorful but completely lacking in point. The intent, I suppose, is to remind Yogi of the group's brotherhood just when he most needs the nudge: after a knock-down fight that erupted between Reggie Jackson (also Battiste) and manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) almost ripped the club apart. But its impact is desperate rather than touching, and letting that many clichés run wild in one room — the down and dirty Babe! the elegant Joe! the long-suffering but gentlemanly Lou! — is just asking for trouble, especially when the rest of the play apparently wants you to take it seriously.

Given Berra's real-life penchant for saying wacky things just a half-step removed from profundity (some of his more famous Yogi-isms are quoted: "I really didn't say everything I said," for example), trying to construct an earnest drama around him isn't easy. And when the stakes are this low, it's practically impossible. From the first scene, in which Yogi attempts to defuse the Martin-Jackson dust-up before it captures the wrong kind of headlines, everything that happens is, if you'll pardon me, inside baseball. Lip service is paid to Jackson's racial impact, particularly as a bridge between the trailblazing Howard and the more mainstream Jeter, but Simonson assumes at every turn that you already care about behind-closed-doors business dealings, and if you don't... Well, good luck.

Bronx Bombers
Richard Topol and Wendy Makkena.
Photo by James Leynse.
Things pick up later when Yogi takes his troubles home and confides in Carmen, and toward the end of Act II when the gang gather for an impromptu memorial just before the final game in the original Yankee Stadium. Though I'm at best a passing fan of the game and have no special affection (or hate!) for the Yankees, I must admit that even my eyes misted over when Yogi, Derek, Reggie, and Carmen pondered the sport, the accomplishments, and the people who had been lost to time while they prepared to march into a new era. Simonson does tap into the effects of time on everything that matters to us, and just about anyone who is exposed to that will find something in it to respond to.

But getting to that point is a chore, partially because of the laziness of Simonson's script, the slack pacing of his direction, and a bewildering set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) that captures all of the frigid, institutional stasis of the worst ballparks but none of the comforting coziness of the best ones. Topol's glacial delivery as Yogi does not help invigorate things, despite his otherwise sensitive portrayal, and though Battiste and Jackson are honestly amusing in their roles you still crave a lot more action from most of the players than you get. Thank goodness, though, for Makkena, who makes her doting wife dazzling, and the superb Wernke, whose powerfully understated Lou is riveting as he tries to hold himself together against a disease that wants to rip him apart.

Wernke also stands out as the only person onstage who seems interested in embodying baseball as a real, rather than a theoretical, activity. In addition to a charming moment in which he recreates Ruth's legendary swing, Lou also wanders around as if permanently dumbfounded at the company he's allowed to keep. Wernke makes you feel, as so many of the best players of any sport do, that he's honored merely to be invited to the party. His wide-eyed respect for the game and for the people around him translates into an enduring adoration for the National Pastime that makes you want to run out right after the show and buy season tickets.

That love, in greater and stronger qualities, is what's most missing from Bronx Bombers. Unlike with his previous two sports outings, Lombardi and Magic/Bird, Simsonson is here trusting that baseball and the Yankees need no introduction, exposition, or onstage playing time — and that merely name-checking them and their history-making, pinstripe-wearing avatars is sufficient. Maybe for die-hard devotees it is, but for everyone else it's likely to be less a grand slam than a pop foul.


Bronx Bombers
Through October 19
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: dukeon42.org