"The Babe," last night's error at the Princess, is a dull, plodding account of the career of the most celebrated of all ball players, the great George Herman (Babe) Ruth. For a fan who to this day will not concede that either Hank Aaron or Roger Maris can fairly be said to have beaten Ruth's home-run record, this one-man show belongs in a sandlot, preferably six feet under.
Max Gail, best known for his role of a lunkhead cop on the "Barney Miller" TV series of a few years back, impersonates Ruth, chatting about his prowess both on and off the field, his ups and downs, from the vantage points of 1923, 1935 (the year he dropped out of the majors), and 1948 (when he died of throat cancer at 53). The chats are separated by old newsreels and stills spliced together to afford quick glimpses of the changing times, and to allow Gail to change costumes.
While he is an agreeable performer, Gail is so totally lacking in personality that his accounts of the baseball hero's all-night bouts with booze and women (the latter professionals much of the time) when on the road tend to make Ruth appear more objectionable than I'm sure the writers, Bob and Ann Acosta, meant to imply. Though Gail tries to suggest something of the Bambino's heartiness, the actor's stolid presence and measured delivery (the director, Noam Pitlik, must surely share the blame for the narrative's dragging pace) contradict his words.
As Gail strolls about the set (locker room at one end, hotel-suite-bar at the other, with a representation of a packed Yankee Stadium in between), we do get a chance to exult at the Babe's feats on the field, and our sympathy is evoked by his recollections of his early years at a Catholic school (his mother dead, his father turned him over to the institution) and his guidance by, and devotion to, Brother Matthias. And, of course, Ruth's lifelong attachment to kids, including the miraculous recovery of a sick boy when the Sultan of Swat obligingly hit a homer for him, is not overlooked.
In the final section, we see a gray and drained man (funny, but I don't recall the gray hair, though I do remember the painfully drawn features), his playing career at an end and a bitterness remaining over his never having been named Yankees manager.
At one point in the 1923 section, he sits down at a studio piano in his suite to plunk out "I Want to Be Happy," a 1925 creation, while scornfully observing that Harry Frazee, owner of the Boston Red Sox and producer of "No, No, Nanette," had traded the heavy-hitter Tris Speaker to help finance a musical comedy. That tune, by the way, is heard on and off during the show in a recorded version, as if to underline Ruth's philosophy of life. Unhappily, neither the song nor the performance raises our spirits in the least.
When the pinstripes are on and The Stadium is applauding that heroically stately run - there was only one Babe Ruth.
Babe's luck, however, ran out last night at the Princess Theater. The Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the pitcher, the hitter, George Herman Ruth came to the stage in the modestly convincing portrayal of Max Gail, and struck out.
This one-man play by Bob and Ann Acosta takes the Babe from his heyday in 1923 - when he first decided that "celebrating was half the fun of winning" - through his self-destructive glory years when Yankee Stadium was "The House That Ruth Built," up until his last hurrah in 1948.
Perhaps not so heroic as his teammate, the ironclad Lou Gehrig, once immortalized on film by Gary Cooper, Ruth is undoubtedly the stuff that legends are made of.
As we are told here: "No one ever hit them that far, that high or that often." Well, Hank Aaron perhaps, but we will let that one pass. With his emphasis on the sheer clout of hitting, the Babe changed the face of baseball.
But what we are treated to in this seemingly interminable monologue are Ruth's maudlin reminiscences of triumphs and insults.
We learn more about the Yankee owner, Jake Ruppert - wow, and Billy thought he had his troubles with George! - than most of us will care to know. What we do not discover is anything of value about either the mystique of baseball, and precisely what made Babe Ruth, the fat kid from Baltimore, run.
He tells us about his drinking, his womanizing, his bitter disappointment at not being named manager of the Yankees (why was that - his arrogance? - after all he seemed to know more about the game than anyone in the business) but really nothing about himself.
The difficulty is that the authors have tried to do a documentary - they have researched original papers, particularly those of Ruth's former business manager Christy Walsh, and interviewed many of Ruth's friends and associates - but it is, by its nature, a documentary with only one witness. The Bambino himself.
The results become not unexpectedly monotonous - and monotony sets in early in the first innings. The playwrights - and presumably the director, Noam Pitlik - have sought to place their man in his landscape by using film clips of his period, suggesting the ambiance of the time.
The film clips - Hitler counterpoised with Jesse Owens for example - manage to be, all at once, obvious, irrelevant, pretentious, yet much more engrossing than the play. One is sorry when they stop.
The scenery by Ray Recht conventionally combines Ruth's bar with his locker-room, and the makeup by Steve Laporte (an unusual title-page Playbill listing) is impressive.
Almost more impressive, indeed, than the performance of Babe Ruth by TV actor Max Gail, which is presumably the show's raison d'etre. Gail, best known for the TV series Barney Miller, no longer seems that comfortable on stage, although in fairness the writing has not given him much to be comfortable in.
He does at least age effectively during the show. But then, so does the audience.
Babe Ruth was, in Red Smith's phrase, ''the complete ballplayer,'' and probably the most colorful character ever to play our national pastime. A great bear of a hero whose exploits on and off the field were legendary, he would seem to be a monumental subject for a movie or a play. But, except for the 1948 popcorn biography, ''The Babe Ruth Story,'' starring William Bendix, he has managed to elude dramatic interpretation.
That ''The Babe,'' the one-man play that opened last night at the Princess Theater, is so wide of the mark, is no small feat. Max Gail, the actor who has chosen to make his Broadway debut impersonating Ruth, and Bob and Ann Acosta, the authors of the monodrama, have collaborated in presenting an evening of bush league Babe.
The play superficially considers the athlete's life, somewhat in the manner of a television documentary. Mr. Gail plays the character at three stages of his career - at his height, on his retirement and at an oldtimers' game in 1948 - looking back to previous years and occasionally stopping for awkward interludes of introspection. The lights dim and the Babe says, ''I'll never forget the kids.''
Each scene is introduced by stock newsreel footage, overlong and badly projected. We see Ruth in uniform, sometimes in tandem with his Yankee teammate Lou Gehrig, and we also see other famous figures of his time, such as Joe Louis and Hitler (far too much of Hitler). Normally, newsreels might be used to cover scene changes, but there are no scene changes. Mr. Gail simply wanders blandly from bar to ball field to locker room.
The actor, who plays a policeman on television's ''Barney Miller,' has been physically transformed with the help of makeup designed by Steve Laporte. He does not look like himself, but neither could he pass for Ruth in a look-alike contest, a fact that is underscored by the movies we are shown of the real thing.
During the film that precedes the final episode, Mr. Gail covers his ruddy complexion with old man makeup. Then he lowers his voice to a croak and reads a sentimental letter from Ruth's boyhood mentor at the St. Mary's Industrial School in Baltimore. In brief moments, the actor also pretends to be Miller Huggins and other characters in Ruth's life, and sulks about not being asked to manage a team.
As directed by Noam Pitlik, the evening is so intent on being inclusive in a relatively short span of time - about the man, and, on film, about his era - that it succeeds in shortchanging his amazing baseball accomplishments as well as his prodigious personal life. Sports fans will find no new information here, and those who are less knowledgeable may wonder what all the shouting was about. As a dramatic portrait of the Sultan of Swat, ''The Babe'' is as deep as a bunt.