Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 6, 2014
Bronx Bombers A New American Play written and directed by Eric Simonson, conceived by Fran Firmser. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Jason Lyons. Original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones. Wig and hair design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Peter Scolari, Francois Battiste, Chris Henry Coffey, Bill Dawes, Christopher Jackson, Keith Nobbs, Tracy Shayne, John Wernke, C.J. Wilson, Brandon Dahlquist, Clark Jackson, Karyn Quackenbush, Jeff Still.
Yes, exactly what should be its strongest selling point is also what ultimately does in Bronx Bombers, which has not improved since it yawned open Off-Broadway a few months back. Its undying, unquestioning affection for the Yankees makes it redundant for those agree and impenetrable for those who don't. And because Simonson hasn't relied on many traditional theatrical devices — tension, sweeping themes, heck even basic narrative through lines — to tell his story, there's not much on hand to keep this evening upright. (In contrast, Simonson's first and best Broadway sports play, Lombardi, was fueled by the famed football coach's complex and captivating marriage.)
If you're already in love with storied lore about the quietly dopey Yogi Berra, the Reggie Jackson–Billy Martin feud of 1977, Babe Ruth's coarseness contrasting with Lou Gehrig's eternally boy-like optimism, and the cataclysmic loss of the original Yankee Stadium in 2008, you'll find their treatment trite; if you're not, you have no choice but to grin and bear your exposure in hopes you'll pick up what you need via theatrical osmosis. Given the parched structure and listless dialogue, however, good luck with that.
The first scene, set in a Boston hotel room the day after Jackson and Martin's spat erupted onto the field, bleats out tidbits about interpersonal conflicts, team self-esteem, and public perception that laze about like a sloth in the sun. We then travel home with coach Yogi, who commiserates with his supportive wife Carmen about his professional troubles while he's terrorized by the ghost of Babe Ruth. Then the Berra hosts a dinner for Yankees old, new, and current (and living and dead), during which everyone swaps stories about how great the team is, was, and will always be, before we're shoved forward to 2008 as Yogi and Derek Jeter mull over the cosmic meaning of the House That Ruth Built.
Though Simsonson has no shortage of bad ideas — that dinner scene goes on forever, with running jokes about potatoes that are at best French fried — a few good ones slip through. Tantalizing dollops of potential come about when discussing the relationship between Jackson, Jeter, and the trailblazing Elston Howard — how race has informed baseball, and the Yankees in particular, could be the subject of a fascinating play, but it's one that interests Simonson only in passing. An uncomfortable mutual-admiration-society camaraderie between the down-and-dirty Ruth and the starched-and-pressed Gehrig, which tries to bloom into a tale of unexpected rivalry, is similarly hinted at but not explored.
All that remains is tedium. Simonson's direction is lean but too loose, letting scenes amble so aimlessly that the collection satisfies as neither a taut character study, a gritty bullpen documentary, or a charming fan-aimed fantasy, all of which it attempts to be at one point or another. Beowulf Boritt's set is a disinterested attempt to cram Yankee Stadium into a blue box and augment it with '70s kitsch. David C. Woolard's costumes, primarily a study in uniform evolution, and Jason Lyons's lights do their proper jobs, though there's not much of an impression for either to make.
That clean-up job falls to the actors, and thankfully many of them are up to its rigors. Though a game Peter Scolari can't do anything special with Yogi, who is basically a vehicle for Simsonson to dispense the seemingly full collection of his priceless Yogi-isms and other lines that sound like them ("Whatever’s gonna happen, it ain’t happened yet," and so on) but comes across like an adenoidal dullard, a few cast members are better off. Francois Battiste makes a magnetic Jackson and Howard, and Christopher Jackson an optimistic and charismatic Jeter. Though C.J. Wilson and Chris Henry Coffey strike the right general notes as Ruth and Joe DiMaggio respectively, their work teeters uncomfortably on the edge of caricature.
The most successful performances come from Tracy Shayne (Scolari's real-life wife), who brings a quirky warmth to Carmen that underscores her emotional connection to the otherwise inscrutable Yogi, and John Wernke as a deeply reverent Gehrig who never loses sight of how lucky he is to have made it as far as he did. Whether recreating Ruth's famous swing or meeting famous players of the far future, Wernke's Gehrig is one who's forever in awe of the magic he's a part of — and allowed to create.
Most of Bronx Bombers feels as though Simsonson conceived and wrote it for just that type of person: one who won't — who can't — be disappointed by anything their favorite team does. And certainly the fans in the audience at the performance I attended, who oohed in approval upon recognizing a person or remembering an event, and chattered excitedly at intermission about where they were when this thing happened or that player died, seemed legitimately thrilled at the living newsreel. If you're one of them, maybe you will be, too, though you won't learn anything. And if you're an outsider — or even just not convinced — you'll be wondering what all the fuss is about, because Simonson is too busy assuming you already know to bother dramatizing it for you.