by Jason S. Grossman · October 9, 2013
Yankee fans rejoice. While the team sits out this postseason, Bronx Bombers is making its world premiere at Primary Stages. From the creative team behind Broadway's Lombardi, the play peers into how the most successful sports franchise in history has maintained such a consistent level of excellence.
The play opens in June 1977 in the aftermath of an infamous incident during a nationally televised game between the Yankees and their rivals the Boston Red Sox. Flashy slugger Reggie Jackson, benefitting from a mega contract but underachieving in his first year on the team, loafs after a short fly ball falls in front of him in right field. His nonchalance in retrieving the ball allows the hitter to advance to second base.
Billy Martin, the Yankees’ volatile manager already at odds with Jackson, does the unthinkable and pulls superstar from the game in the middle of the inning. Jackson jogs into the dugout, and the two almost come to blows requiring coaches Yogi Berra and Howard to keep them apart. Now, it’s the following day and Berra has arranged for a clandestine meeting with Martin, Jackson and team captain Thurman Munson to smooth things over. It might not proceed according to plan.
Jackson, Martin and Munson proceed to spar about egos, contracts and race issues while Berra vainly espouses what it means to be a Yankee. Here, the banter and characterizations are dead-on and reminiscent of the time period (for those who are old enough to remember when the participants dominated the headlines).
In act two the play channels Field of Dreams enabling us to meet more of our baseball idols via an exclusive dinner party. Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Elston Howard (and eventually even Derek Jeter) casually enter one by one. Each is faithfully portrayed with reverence and wit. Enter the biggest personality of all, Babe Ruth, and the guest list is complete. It’s a fantastical gathering, and we are tickled to be witness to it.
Pleasantries quickly devolve into animosity as personality clashes surface. These are not embellishments: Simonson’s script alludes to the famous run-ins between DiMaggio and rookie Mantle, Gehrig’s puritan values versus Ruth’s excessive partying, even Howard’s jealousy of the other more popular players. We see that while their talent was monumental and they were worshipped by their fans, these were just well-paid men playing a kid’s game.
Overall, it’s a highly entertaining evening. Writer/director Eric Simonson ably walks a fine line giving the audience just the right amount of baseball history and lore. There are plenty of baseball anecdotes and classic references.
Berra is extremely endearing as the central character trying to hold (or pull) the team together. His undying love for the Yankees and America’s pastime is our own. But he is also a curious choice as the protagonist. Yogi, hilarious malapropisms galore, seems more like a great supporting character than lead.
Simonson attempts to break down the Yankee mystique and expose the individual players. Mantle is good old boy who drinks too much; Ruth abuses every vice known to man; DiMaggio is unapproachable; Gehrig is stricken with ALS at an early age. Simonson respectfully uses the humble clean-living Gehrig to punctuate his story. The players (wearing their uniforms to magnify their iconic status) pull no punches in expressing their differences. Their clashes mirror Jackson and Martin’s conflict in the first act. But these larger than life players have always been part of a team, a team that has won far more championships than any other.
Bronx Bombers feels more like a star-studded program celebrating a legendary sports franchise than a traditional play. The second act suffers somewhat from a lack of dramatic tension. The shift to an extended dream sequence makes the initial conflict explored in act one something of an afterthought.
For baseball fans there is no mystery as to what happens after the fallout of the benching incident (and the ongoing clash with Martin and Jackson): In 1977 the Yankees went on to win the division and subsequently the World Series with none other than Jackson leading the way.
Simonson directs his play well crafting his earthbound and otherworldly settings beautifully. It’s all lush window-dressing for the Yankee baseball gods. We feel privileged to see the icons living and in person. Beowulf Borritt (Scenic Design) and Jason Lyons (Lighting Design) prove to be talented teammates in supporting Simonson’s vision.
The cast is quite good playing such high-profile personalities. Richard Topol is sympathetic and dryly funny as Berra. Francois Battiste does a great turn as the egotistic Jackson. Bill Dawes shows wonderful versatility as the curmudgeonly Thurman Munson and the fun-loving Mantle. Wendy Makkena as Carmen Berra adds a touch of honest humanity to the story of boys being boys through the generations.
Sports aficionados will enjoy Bronx Bombers and fans of the team will absolutely adore it. Whether we gain new insight about the individuals who played for the most storied team in sports might be beside the point. To hear them talk and interact and reminisce is a thrill all its own.