Eric Simonson is well on his way to immortalizing every sport in a Broadway play: First, there was football (“Lombardi”), then basketball (“Magic/Bird”) and now baseball with his “Bronx Bombers,” which opened Thursday at Circle in the Square. At this rate, aficionados of synchronized swimming should probably get their play sometime in the next decade.
In “Bronx Bombers,” it’s crisis time in the land of the Yankees. And a sports crisis for Simonson, who also directs, is equal to a nuclear meltdown or the onset of male pattern baldness.
Before “Bombers” opens, the Yankee’s star player Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) and manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) have had a very public dustup on the field. As the curtain goes up, Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari) is there to make peace between the two men and maybe even return to being the team’s much beloved manager. Should he take the job?
This painful question inspires a dream, a dream that takes up most of act two. When Yogi wakes up from this dream, he is asked if it is a nightmare. No, it’s just a very misguided second act.
In the dream, Yogi and his wife (Tracy Shayne) arrange a dinner party including Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson), Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes), Elston Howard (Francois Battiste), Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), Lou Gehrig (John Wernke) and Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey) to help him make his decision.
Woody Allen did something like this in “Midnight in Paris” when he conjured up the likes of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali. From the evidence of Simonson’s play and Allen’s movie, painters and writers make a helluva lot better dinner guests than baseball players. The premise isn’t bad, but the around-the-table chat in “Bombers” is.
Mantle is a drunk who calls DiMaggio “Mr. Coffee,” DiMaggio goes wild even at the mention of the initials M.M., Gehrig’s doctor has told him to stop smoking, Jeter says there’s no short way of saying Derek, Howard wistfully regrets not being more high-profile, and Ruth makes anachronistic jokes about traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. Plus there are all those laugh lines regarding everyone’s pre-inflation salaries.
Yogi Berra’s penchant for aphorisms that speak the truth through contradiction (“I may be nostalgic, but I don’t like to live in the past”) are delivered with great aplomb by Scolari, but ultimately this ex-catcher turns into a wimp who should get a life outside the ball park.
After the endless dream sequence, Simonson takes us to the last game in the old Yankee Stadium. It’s like he’s directing the Passion Play what with all the dry ice foaming and church bells ringing and beatific light streaming. It’s not unusual for screenwriters to direct their own scripts, but they’re working in collaboration with a cinematographer and an editor. Playwrights who direct their own plays don’t have that buffer, and this production of “Bronx Bombers” is a textbook example of why they should stick to writing.