The first sign a major knuckleball is coming in the baseball play “Bronx Bombers” is when the smoke machines crank up.
Until then, Eric Simonson’s script is an unremarkable behind-the-scenes look at a moment in 1977 when the New York Yankees were in crisis. Their star player, Reggie Jackson, was brawling with the team’s manager, Billy Martin, and clubhouse morale was at a low point.
Then the central figure in this drama — Yogi Berra, trying to keep the team together as a coach — starts hearing ghosts in his bedroom and the swirling smoke kicks in. The Babe — Babe Ruth, naturally — then suddenly stands there in his pinstripes with a bat. Of course. Who doesn’t have this exact same dream?
The next scene, which opens Act 2, is perhaps one of the most improbable and downright silly moments to be put onstage this season: A fancy dinner with some Yankee greats from the past and present. Babe Ruth! Mickey Mantle! Lou Gehrig! Joe DiMaggio! Derek Jeter? Wait, what?
That snapping sound you hear is the sudden end of Simonson’s two-and-a-half plays grounded in realism and his entry into the surreal. A play that was becoming the Yogi Berra story — featuring a super Peter Scolari wringing every emotion from the script heroically — has now turned into the daydreams of an 11-year-old.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what Mantle would tell Gehrig, this is the play for you. (For the record, it’s “pleasure to meet you, sir. I, um, I came up just after you.”) The Yankee immortals all trade war stories, salary details, free agency tales and grouse over the increasingly invasive media. They eat potatoes. They continue to wear their uniforms, cleats and all.
They also say things like “baseball’s the best damn thing that ever happened to this country” and reveal this secret for their success: “A Yankee’s got to be a Yankee.” Among these athletic giants is Yogi’s wife, Carmen, (an underused Tracy Shayne), likely wondering why she got cast in this dream — and this play.
Eventually, DiMaggio threatens to leave — prompting the almost required “Joe, don’t go!” — and Gehrig physically weakens before our eyes, a crass reminder of the disease that will kill him. The madness ends with him recreating the weakened stance he held while bidding farewell to the Yankees. It’s a maudlin turn for something that’s already half-baked.
“Bronx Bombers,” which opened Thursday at the Circle in the Square Theater, is the third sports-related play to make it to Broadway from producing team Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, following “Lombardi,” about football icon Vince Lombardi, and “Magic/Bird,” about the friendship between basketball legends Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird.
Simonson, who wrote all three, this time also directs “Bronx Bombers,” and he does so with such reverence to the baseball franchise that it veers into fairy tale. Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees put money in the show, and it shows. The play played off-Broadway last year and has been tweaked since then, but not enough to make it more than Yankee advertising.
Ruth (played by C.J. Wilson like a sort of W.C. Fields) is brash and ready to party; Mantle (Bill Dawes, who also plays Thurman Munson) is a jokey hothead; DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey) is squinty and haughty; Elston Howard is polite but frustrated (a good Francois Battiste, who also earlier plays a terrific Jackson); and Gherig (John Wernke) who seems a bit like a confused hick (”What’s TV?” he asks at one point, since he died in 1941. In another scene he blurts out: “World War II?” Wait until he finds out about the Red Sox’s recent resurgence.)
After the head-scratching dinner scene, the play fast-forwards to the Yankee locker room in 2008 on the last game in the old Yankee Stadium and resumes its low-key, grounded-in-reality air. Yogi’s back again and so is Jeter (Christopher Jackson, this time apparently not an apparition.)
There’s a lot of hat-tipping, swelling moments and it seems like we in the audience should get teary and sentimental. “It’s about the people, not the building,” Berra says sagely. But it’s also about the drama, and, in this case, the play strikes out looking.
After finishing in last place Off-Broadway, “Bronx Bombers” spent the off-season retooling for Broadway’s big league.
All the rigorous exercise — along with some canny tweaks — over the past three months has paid off.
The central tension — a perennial Yankee saga about team tradition versus personal stardom — is better illuminated. The formerly bipolar halves of the show — part drama, part dream sequence — now fit together better.
And the casting of the always-appealing Peter Scolari (“Bosom Buddies” and “Lucky Guy”) as the lovable, malaprop-prone Yogi Berra adds a reliable bat to the lineup.
It’s too bad that writer and director Eric Simonson’s play is still choked by sentiment right out of Lou Gehrig’s “I consider myself (myself, myself ...)” speech.
Simonson has carved a mini-empire out of sports shows: “Lombardi” was about football and leadership. “Magic/Bird” focused on basketball and competition. Now teamwork is the name of the game.
The action leads off in 1977 in a Boston hotel suite. It’s the morning after volatile Yankees manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) pulled narcissistic superstar Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) out of a game.
Berra has brought together the foes, plus Yankees captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes), to stop throwing beanballs at each other for the ballclub’s sake. But Jackson has a different notion of the Pride of the Yankees than Martin.
“I didn’t come here to melt into someone else’s idea of a team,” says the walking candy bar. “I came here to be Reggie Jackson.”
Juicy stuff. Add the crisp and colorful performances, and the scene crackles — as it did before.
What’s new about the act is the expanded presence of Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson). The bigger-than-life Sultan of Swat bridges the past and the present, the real and the mythic as the show becomes a fantasy.
“The times, they do change, you know,” booms Babe in a voice amplified for otherworldly impact. “And then again they don’t.” In other words, the Yankees have always faced scrapes. And always endured.
Unfortunately, the promising provocative talk of the opening innings gets benched for mushier hero worship and backward glances at glory days.
The play sends itself to the showers in a scene featuring Yogi and his wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne, Scolari’s real-life wife) hosting a banquet for pinstripe legends. The guest list includes Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson), Mickey Mantle (Dawes), Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Elston Howard (Battiste), Gehrig (John Wernke) and Ruth.
Devout Yankee fans may get misty at the sight of the beloved Iron Horse, bedeviled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, meeting today’s Mr. Nice Guy Derek Jeter.
But the scene is more sugary than the Cracker Jack served in the upper deck. And manipulative music seemingly recruited from “The Natural” seeks to tug heartstrings.
When all is said and done, “Bronx Bombers” is too feel-good and fawning for its own good.
There’s a reason sports shows are rare: Not only are they tough to stage, but theater and jocks rarely share the same playing field.
Yet writer Eric Simonson has found a way to pull it off, or at least get produced. With “Bronx Bombers” sliding into home plate, Simonson’s now had three locker-room yarns on Broadway — including 2010’s “Lombardi” (about the Green Bay Packers coach) and 2012’s “Magic/Bird” (about the NBA icons).
In the sports pages, they call that a winning streak.
Despite focusing on three different sports, the shows have a lot in common, namely a preference for the inspirational human-interest stories behind the stats and championships.
At least the two earlier outings vaguely alluded to gray areas.
“Bronx Bombers,” which Simonson also directed, is a shamelessly reverent love letter to the Yankees — or rather the myths the Yankees built around themselves.
The biggest believer is Yogi Berra.
Berra is the heart of “Bombers,” and he embodies team devotion while delivering an avalanche of amusing Yogi-isms — “I may be nostalgic, but I don’t like to live in the past,” and so on.
Unfortunately, he’s played as a doddering holy fool by Peter Scolari (most recently seen as Lena Dunham’s dad on “Girls”). Richard Topol was more effectively sly in the show’s off-Broadway run, back in October.
In the first act, set in 1977, Berra tries to broker peace talks between manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) and right fielder Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) in a Boston hotel room. The two brawled in the Fenway Park dugout, and the distraught Berra can’t bear to see his squad divided.
Shortly thereafter, he returns home to his loving wife, Carmen (Tracy Shayne, Scolari’s real-life spouse).
And then Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson) appears, looking wholly unaffected by his death decades earlier.
Most of the show’s second half consists of a dream in which the Berras hold a dinner party for the Babe and fellow legends Lou Gehrig (John Wernke) and Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes).
The first African-American Yankee, Elston Howard (Battiste again), is there, too. Even snooty Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey) turns up, while Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson) represents for the younger generation.
The point seems to be that Yankee greatness bridges generations, and that petty rivalries should be snuffed out for the organization’s greater good.
What’s more amazing than dead players chatting over hors d’oeuvres is that a show about a team with such a backlog of personalities, controversies and scandals could be so dull. No George Steinbrenner, no Red Sox, no juicing — no drama.
At this point, you have to wonder what’s next for Simonson. A play about hockey in which the Care Bear players hug?
Talk about your fantasy baseball team. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, for starters. Plus Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. Add the catcher Elston Howard, the first black player on the New York Yankees roster, and throw in the team’s current captain, Derek Jeter.
Strange though it may sound, this pinstriped pantheon sits down to dine together in a dream sequence from “Bronx Bombers,” an affectionate celebration of Yankee greatness (with a smidgen of Yankee angst) written and directed by Eric Simonson. The play, which opened at the Circle in the Square on Thursday night, is the third in Mr. Simonson’s series of rah-rah dramas about famous sports figures to be presented on Broadway, following “Lombardi” and “Magic/Bird,” two similarly workmanlike plays about legendary names from the worlds of football and basketball.
With both the Yankees and Major League Baseball Properties among its presenters, you can be sure that Mr. Simonson’s play, which pivots on the Yankees’ tumultuous 1977 season and stars Peter Scolari as a harried Yogi Berra, will not throw too many spitballs or even inside fastballs in the direction of the sport. At one point during that dream dinner, someone refers to fears that fans would not return after a certain calamity. The reference is to Sept. 11, not the drug scandal that has tarnished baseball in recent years. (Guess who’s not coming to dinner? Alex Rodriguez.)
The first scene is set in a Boston hotel room, where Berra is holding a private meeting in an attempt to tamp down the animosities that flared during the previous day’s loss to the Yankees’ longtime rivals, the Red Sox. The manager Billy Martin and the outfielder Reggie Jackson almost came to blows in the dugout after Martin pulled Jackson from a game, believing he hadn’t hustled to a short ball.
Berra has invited the antagonists to air their beefs, and corralled the team captain, Thurman Munson (a cool Bill Dawes), to act as his co-referee. Martin, played with haywire energy by Keith Nobbs, enters in full fume, his anger inflamed by the fear that the Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner, will give him the shove — an outcome that has the volatile Martin breaking down in tears. His devotion to the team is expressed in words that will moisten the eyes of rabid fans: “There’s no better feeling in the world than when I put on the pinstripes.”
Berra spritzes the room with similar sentiments, imploring Jackson to make nice by evoking fabled lineups of the past. “That’s what the Yankees are more than anything else,” Berra says. “A team. Always have been, and you and Billy and Thurman and all the other guys got to find a way to become that team.”
But Jackson (a suavely funny Francois Battiste) expresses a different view, one that may put those fans in mind of the current Yankee franchise, with its constellation of high-price-tag players who haven’t been bringing home the pennants lately. Jackson was a star with the Oakland A’s imported to add some wattage to the team — both in the media and on the field — but he stands firm when Berra suggests he must subordinate himself to the collective.
“I didn’t come here to melt into someone else’s idea of a team,” he says coolly. “I came here to be Reggie Jackson, and as far as I can tell, that’s exactly why Mr. Steinbrenner brought me here — for me to be me.”
While Jackson and Martin trade accusations, with Munson mostly siding with the manager, Berra scurries around trying to patch things up. Naturally, this involves a bubbling stream of Yogi-isms that allow Mr. Simonson to inject some humor into the proceedings. (“Whatever’s gonna happen, it ain’t happened yet.”) Mr. Scolari, who gives a funny, feisty performance, delivers these in a nicely offhand style that manages to keep the zing without turning each verbal pratfall into a cartoon caption.
The drama inherent in clashing egos gives “Bronx Bombers” some natural juice in the early innings, but the suspense about whether Martin will be axed — and Berra will agree to replace him — more or less gets benched in the play’s second act. (With that, you’ll be glad to hear, my small repertoire of baseball metaphors has been exhausted.) After a night spent fretting about the situation to his wife, Carmen (a warm Tracy Shayne, Mr. Scolari’s wife), Berra seems to wake up on the day of the big old-timers dinner he’s hosting in some sort of netherworld.
One by one, the greats of past teams troop in. Nothing too strange about the presence of the button-down DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey) or the cocky Mantle (Mr. Dawes again) being present. And even Howard (Mr. Battiste) was still alive in 1977. But it’s a bit peculiar when Gehrig (John Wernke) and Ruth (C. J. Wilson) arrive, followed by Jeter (Christopher Jackson), who was not even playing Little League at the time.
Yankee lovers may not find this sudden lurch into fantasy particularly worrisome. They will enjoy watching these fabled greats impersonated by a skilled cast of actors, with Mr. Coffey’s showboating Mantle, teasing his teammate DiMaggio for his sleek suit and terse style, and Mr. Wilson’s Ruth, full of barroom boisterousness, hogging much of the spotlight. But the play doesn’t negotiate the move from the real world to the dream world very smoothly. (A sentimental coda to the play returns us to reality, in time for the farewell game at the old Yankee Stadium.)
None of the attendees seems to find the presence of the long-dead Ruth or Gehrig particularly bizarre. (“Thank you so much for coming,” Carmen says to Lou, utterly non-nonplussed.) The players more or less settle down and start trading lore and jokes as if they’d all been sharing a dugout for years.
Fans of rival teams like the Red Sox or the Mets (I confess!) infiltrating the audience might take a more jaundiced view of the players’ nonchalance. It figures, they might sourly observe, that a Yankee would expect to exist on some heightened plane, one that confers instant immortality.
"Look, I may be nostalgic, but I don't like to live in the past." So said Yogi Berra in one of the Yankee icon's famous Yogi-locutions, unless maybe he didn't say it because, as he also supposedly said, "I really didn't say everything I said."
Or so he says in "Bronx Bombers," Eric Simonson's sentimental, nostalgic, mildly diverting love letter to the Yanks, which has opened on Broadway, recast with Peter Scolari as Yogi, after a lukewarm reception Off-Broadway last fall.
Like Simonson's "Lombardi," heavily promoted by the NFL, and his "Magic/Bird," connected to the NBA, "Bronx Bombers" is presented in association with the Yankees and Major League Baseball Properties.
In other words, this is official sports-niche theater, a reverential genre discovered and filled since 2010 by author/director Simonson and his producers. The lobby of the theater is festooned with colorful memorabilia and, inside, the audience sits on all four sides as if facing the field.
The first act is pegged to a 1977 flashpoint, when manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs in moody-cowboy black) dared to take star Reggie Jackson out of a game against the Red Sox game in the middle of an inning. After Yogi tries to make things right at a secret hotel meeting, he returns home to the supportive missus (Tracy Shayne, Scolari's real-life bride) and hallucinates a midnight banquet.
All the ghostly old-timers have been invited -- a pugnacious Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes), a slick Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), an almost angelic Lou Gehrig (John Wernke, glowing with innocence of his impending disease) and a boisterous, racist Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson). Francois Battiste, cockily pitch-perfect as Jackson, returns as Elston Howard, first black Yankee. Oh, and Derek Jeter is there (Christopher Jackson), dashing, humble and heroic, naturally.
Scolari plays Yogi with obvious affection for a legend bent with age but unbowed in team loyalty, a man panicked at the sense of the team ever splitting apart. There is plenty of inside-baseball inside-stuff, explained with relative grace. And for those of us who don't much care, designer David C. Woolard amuses us with the changing styles of the uniforms.
Early in the 20th century, a group of extraordinary men came together, devoted to providing lesser mortals constant examples of physical and spiritual excellence. In the years that followed, they endured all manner of tragedy and adversity to stick together, so that we, too, could survive as a nation.
This is not a reference to some elite military unit or civil-service organization, but to the New York Yankees, the subject of Bronx Bombers (* * out of four stars), the new play/hagiography that opened Thursday at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre.
Bombers is the third in a "sports series for stage" conceived by Fran Kirmser, written by playwright Eric Simonson and produced by Kirmser and Tony Ponturo. The trio previously collaborated on Lombardi (about renowned football coach Vince Lombardi) and Magic/Bird (basketball stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird).
The earlier tributes were respectively presented in association with the NFL and NBA, while Bombers finds its producers joining forces with Major League Baseball Properties, and a specific team. Care to guess which one?
The new play's central figure is Yogi Berra, the legendary Yankees catcher-turned-manager-turned-coach-turned-manager again (briefly), introduced in a Boston hotel room in 1977. The team has just lost to its historic rival, the Boston Red Sox, and the Yankees' current manager, the famously temperamental Billy Martin, has publicly chewed out its hot-shot new right-fielder/slugger, one Reggie Jackson.
Jackson and Martin will turn up shortly, as will team captain Thurman Munson. As Munson has his own beef with Jackson, it's up to Berra, the coach, to smooth the waters. It is not yet known that (spoiler alert for non-baseball fans) Jackson will help lead the team to World Series victories that year and the next, and Munson's career and life will be cut short in a 1979 plane crash.
But those milestones will be reverently acknowledged before long, alongside many other events, names and statistics. Bombers ends in 2008, but most of the second act is consumed by a long, bombastic scene in which Berra interacts with a dream team of Yankee greats, from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter — some of whom appear to us first in angelic flashes of light, or as thundering voices.
There are more intentionally comic moments, mined by a company of mostly valuable players under Simonson's appropriately eager direction. Peter Scolari, credited as helping Kirmser conceive Bombers, affects a convincing-enough simulation of Berra's folksy quirks, which are complemented by the homespun pluck and beaming devotion of Tracy Shayne's Carmen Berra. (Shayne is Scolari's real-life missus as well.)
Francois Battiste does deft double duty as Jackson, whom we see humble with age, and Elston Howard, the Yankees' first African-American member. Changing times are noted with predictable obviousness and heavy-handedness. Informed of professional baseball's declining popularity in the '60s, C.J. Wilson's droll Ruth turns serious, declaring that "kids need baseball," the game being a "team sport" and "America's sport."
On those points, at least, some Red Sox fans will agree.
So, what’s next — golf? Scribe-for-hire Eric Simonson and producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo have this factory assembly-line thing going with pro sports organizations: First came “Lombardi,” backed by the National Football League, then “Magic / Bird” with the National Basketball Association, and now, “Bronx Bombers,” which has the blessing of the Yankees and Major League Baseball. Marketing this one might be more of a challenge, though. With the exception of the baseball-crazy Japanese, can you sell the Broadway tourist audience on this rah-rah cheer for the home team?
The “Field of Dreams” show concept (credited to lead producer Kirmser) is actually kind of touching. At the time of the play, the Yankees are in such a moral funk that sainted coach Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari, pleased as punch to be performing this labor of love) must summon its late, great heroes from beyond the grave to save the club from self-immolation.
The story begins in Boston in 1977, when Yankees manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs, jumpy as a cat) has his infamous public meltdown in Fenway Park over a lackluster play by prima donna Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste). Team captain Thurman Munson (the very mellow Bill Dawes) is understandably put out, but coach Yogi Berra (Scolari) is positively devastated by this unseemly display of poor sportsmanship. More than anyone else in the ball club, Yogi is afraid that the Yankees are falling apart as a team — which to his way of thinking means that civilization is dead and the world as we know it is coming to an end.
That first scene is played in a style of heightened realism, with the stress on the laugh lines. ”I really didn’t say all the things I said,” says Yogi, who proceeds to trot out some of the best lines he never said. Nobbs does a pretty funny impression of Billy, playing the famously volatile manager as a twitchy neurotic who lives in a state of high anxiety, erupting in a rage or bursting into tears at the least provocation. Battiste has perfected Reggie’s distinctive swagger, the swinging disco dancer with the snappy clothes and the sexy moves.
All this macho posturing boils down to a clash of individual personalities and, beyond that, an identity crisis for the whole team. Paranoid neurotic though he may be, Martin stands for traditional team values, while Reggie is the shooting star who represents a new age with new values, the ones that money can buy.
It’s a fight, literally and ideologically, which suits the theater-in-the-round configuration of the stage at Circle in the Square. Beowulf Boritt’s neat set of the hotel room where Billy Martin and Reggie have their confrontation even looks a little like a fight ring.
The Circle in the Square also has a sophisticated system of traps, which is well utilized for a second act dream sequence in which Yogi and faithful wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne, Scolari’s real-life spouse) host an elaborate dinner for all the Yankee immortals. A fully dressed banquet table — china, silver, flowers, the works — pops up from beneath the stage to greet the rather dazed looking ballplayers who have been summoned from the great beyond to reaffirm the enduring solidarity of the team, and maybe teach that one-man-band Reggie Jackson something about team loyalty.
This is what will bring out the fans — cameo appearances from the greatest ballplayers in the annals of Yankee history. Big, brash, eternally boyish Mickey Mantle (Dawes). The greatest slugger of them all, Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), who comes onstage wearing a raccoon coat, smoking a big cigar and carrying a case of booze. Cool, collected Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey). The under-appreciated pioneer, Elston Howard (Battiste). The nicest guy in the world, Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson). And the beloved and tragic Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), a mystical presence who awes them all.
“I heard one of our guys was in trouble,” says the ethereal Gehrig, in a show of the Yankee team solidarity that Yogi feared no longer meant anything to the new crop of highly paid, self-promoting superstars.
These Olympian immortals don’t actually say or do much of dramatic note in a play that’s noticeably lacking in drama. But it’s interesting to get their perspectives on the vicissitudes of big league baseball over the years. Mickey Mantle, for example, blames the Sixties for the seismic shift when ballplayers went from playing on teams to performing as personalities. But their collective presence is enough to reassure Yogi that they embody the spirit of the Yankees and that spirit will live on forever. And maybe that’s all it takes to make the fans happy.