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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The Review During the Premiere Run
In order to populate his play with the starriest players in the team's history, Simonson uses an explosive 1977 battle between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson to establish a dramatic arc. He casts Yogi Berra, known even non baseball aficionados through his much quoted Berra-isms, as the referee and peacemaker. It's a tough job that Simonson eases by brnging on legendary old timers like Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Joey Martin. This feast of iconic players is dished up via a favorite literary device, a dream scene.
Of Mr. Simonson's three sports-themed plays I've now seen (I actually saw Lombardi in a Berkshire trial run as well as on Broadway), Bronx Bombers, comes closest to being a real play. Unlike the other ventures, it has no books and videos on the same subject to invite negative comparisons and the actors, a number of whom appeared in the previous productions, have more to work with.
That's not to say that the playwright isn't relying on the crowd pleasing nostalgia evoked by a play about an era whose top of the line players were at one time known at least by name and sight to a huge general public. Nor does the mix of bio-drama and fantasy ever really escape a tendency to come off as contrived, predictable and overly seasoned with hokey sentiment. That's why the producers, who include The New York Yankees and Major League Baseball as associates, have wisely mounted Bronx Bombers in an Off-Broadway rather than a Broadway house, and for a limited run.
While the Duke on 42nd Street seats far fewer people than a Broadway house it serves the play very well. It's a very flexible venue and for this play has been reconfigured to seat the audience all around the stage. Beowulf Boritt has created a very open playing area to accommodate each act's two scenes, each with a different setting: The first act which takes place right after the Billy Martin/Reggie Jackson blowup shifts from a hotel room to Yogi Berra's New Jersey home; the second act is still in the Berra home, but this time in the dining room from which the action fast forwards to the Yankees' locker room. (Bravo to what's probably the hardest working, most efficient crew of prop workers in town).
The playwright, who also directs, has done a commendable job of guiding his actors' movements with an awareness of the problems inherent in this type of all-around seating. Richard Topol as Yogi Berra looks nothing like pictures I recall seeing, but the gait and speech pattern seem right on the mark. Actually, there's been no attempt to make any of the actors really resemble their real life counterparts. and in the case of Chris Henry Coffey's Joe DiMaggio and C. J. Wilson's Babe Ruth this is rather distracting.
As in Lombardi, there's only one female character. Wendy Makkena is fine, as Yogi's loving and loyal wife Carmen. Thanks to the costume designer David C. Woolard and wig designer Paul Huntley she easily shifts from pillow talk, to hosting a dinner party, to older and still cheer leading spouse. But it's not quite as perfect a fit as the Mrs. Lombardi part was for Judith Light.
The entire cast works well together. The standout performances are by the two actors whose dugout battle is the play's reason for being. Francois Battiste, who also made a strong showing in Magic Bird, is an attention holder, both as Reggie Jackson, and Elston Howard, an earlier black player. Keith Nobbs, is a knockout as the volatile Billy Martin and also as a journalist, similar to the one he portrayed in Lombardi.
Brown Bombers is a feel good slice of American sports lore and a chance for Eric Simonson to write glowingly about an era he love. I think three dramatic outings to the sports arena are enough. But the playwright may disagree and invite us all to some eventful gathering at the Forest Hills Tennis Club.