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|A CurtainUp Review
Nobody Donít Like Yogi
By Jerry Weinstein
When bench coach Don Zimmer quit the Yankees this past weekend, the ballclub still reeling from its World Series loss to the Marlins, his sentiments were a close echo to those of Yogi Berra some eighteen years ago.
When Yogi was fired by George Steinbrenner back in 1985, he became part of an elite club. In thirty years of owning the most successful franchise in all of professional sports, George has hired and fired his managers twenty times. After Steinbrenner cut him from the roster, only sixteen games into the season, Yogi vowed never to return as long as Steinbrenner ruled the roost.
This off-Broadway production of Nobody Donít Like Yogi opens one month after the death of Joe DiMaggio. Steinbrenner has invited the beloved former Yankee to return to the fold fourteen years later, to accept his apology and to throw out the first pitch Opening Day April 5, 1999. Over the course of this one-man play Yogi prepares to address the fans, while recalling a life enfolded by pinstripes.
Yogi joins Take Me Out and Rounding Third as the third baseball play to tread the boards this year. While Richard Greenbergís Take Me Out waxes poetic about our nationís greatest pastime, Yogi himself is anything but eloquent. Before Bushisms, Yogiís malapropisms were the stuff of legend. If his most famous utterance was "It ainít over until itís over," this play strives to show that a manís humanity, his ability for empathy, is the true mark of leadership.
The Yankees are in a class unto themselves. They have won 26 World Championships, 39 pennants, and have made 42 playoff appearances. They have been called a dynasty, a dictatorship, but are, above all, a billion dollar franchise. When Yogi joined the Yankees in 1943 it was a family. He used home-spun wisdom and camaraderie the way todayís CEOs use fear -- effectively -- to become one of the few managers to have won pennants in both the American and National Leagues. As tenderly played by Ben Gazzara, Yogi is a mensch. Over the course of this evening he recalls the turning points of his life -- being called up to the Yankees in 1943, learning his craft as a catcher under the great Bill Dickey, and meeting Carmen, the love of his love.
The playís setting, the Yankees Clubhouse, is spare and somnolent. There is a trio of standing lockers stage right, with the managerís desk and chair (Yogi still thought of it as Casey Stengelís desk), stage left. Set designer Tony Walton has created a monochromatic Red Groomsian diorama: from above, there is a bas-relief of the stadiumís upper decks shimmering under a night sky.
While Ben Gazzara is best known for his cinematic collaborations with John Cassavetes, he is equally celebrated in theater. He originated the role of Brick, another athlete, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which has just made its return to Broadway with Jason Patric). While Yogi was known to have said, "Iím not inwardly outgoing," Gazzara has usually played Alpha Men. While his casting might first appear to be against type, he ultimately shows the inner strength of a man who, while deferential, was unyielding. Throughout his life, Yogi Berraís principles remained intact, as husband, father, and manager.
Nobody Donít Like Yogi, might also have been called Nobody Likes Steinbrenner, so great is the shadow of "The Boss." Not to take anything away from Gazzaraís performance, one wonders how Tom Lysaghtís one-man piece might play reimagined as an ensemble piece. After all, baseball is a team sport, and Steinbrenner is one helluva protagonist. True, we might lose some of the pathos, but thereíd be a net gain in dramatic tension.
Yogi once remarked, "Why dredge up the past? You canít live in it." Indeed. At a time when the Yankees payroll approaches $150 million, Yogi is an anachronism, a remembrance of things past. He harkens back not only to a time of integrity, but also to a moment when baseball was a game not only to be won, but to be played.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHERPLAYS MENTIONED
Take Me Out
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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