Theater Review: ‘Bronx Bombers’

Out at second
February 27, 2014 Updated: February 26, 2014

NEW YORK—If one is a fan of the New York Yankees and their storied history, especially events in the late 1970s, then Bronx Bombers, written and directed by Eric Simonson and conceived by Fran Kirmser, might be a show to see. For almost everybody else, however, it’s a play continually swinging for the fences but ending up as a soft single.

The central figure is Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari in a dynamic performance) who has spent decades with the club as a player, coach, and manager.

Act 1 takes place in a Boston hotel room in 1977 where Yogi, at this point a coach, has arranged a meeting between Yankees manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) and their new star player Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste).

Jackson’s outspokenness brings him into conflict with Martin and causes considerable dissension among the team members. Also present is Yankees captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes).

Simonson plays up the idea of team mentality versus the power of the individual. There’s also a mention of race relations and how one person’s comments and attitude can be seen differently by others.

With the club about to be ripped apart by internal strife, Yogi tries to find a way for everyone to get along, though Martin and Jackson each have particular ideas on that score.

Yogi’s despair over his inability to fix things leads to a crisis of faith, a problem he recounts to his wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne). Matters eventually culminate in a sumptuous dinner party where such Yankee immortals as Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), Lou Gehrig (John Wemke), Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Mickey Mantle (Dawes), Elston Howard (Battiste), and Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson) appear.

It’s certainly interesting to see these ballplayers together as they share tales from their respective time periods. It shows, among other things, how salaries have changed over the years, as has the intensity of media scrutiny.

There are also some amusing moments as when Gehrig, who died in 1941, asks the others to explain television, and when Jeter mentions how they will one day tear down Yankee Stadium, the other players react in horror.

Unfortunately, all of these instances, heartfelt though some of them turn out to be, really don’t advance the plot. Additionally, the audience never sees who these players are underneath their public personas, except in the most superficial of terms.

Through it all, names are dropped, incidents are recalled (anyone remember Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley and his request to use orange baseballs?), much of it passing with the speed of a broadcast highlights reel.

The problem is that Simonson seems too enamored with the history of the characters and situations he’s chosen to present. He counts on the audience’s love for the Yankees to have them willingly follow his tale from start to finish. As such he feels no need to fill in gaps in the narrative, making it very hard for those not completely in the know to follow the story.

Scolari does quite well as Berra, both looking and acting the part, while dropping one Yogism after another: “What I see is open to interpretation,” and “We may not get to the bottom of this but at least we can take the high road.”

There’s also good chemistry between Scolari and Shayne, though Shayne’s character has little do other than be supportive.

Nobbs does a very good turn as Billy Martin, looking and sounding like him from the period depicted.

Nobbs, Dawes, and Battiste wear costume designer David C. Woolard’s 1970s outfits wonderfully, though Battiste’s characterizations of Jackson and Howard appear too much the same at points.

Dawes is quietly effective as Munson, his appearance offering a poignant note to those who remember his untimely passing.

Beowulf Boritt’s sets work well, the show taking place in a theater-in-the-round setting, and the dinner scene is handsomely presented.

Original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones is good throughout and nicely stirring at the opening and closing of each of the two acts.

Simonson’s direction makes the show move nicely, as he does the best he can with the material he has given himself to work with.

Bronx Bombers isn’t a particularly bad piece, but on the whole feels rather empty, offering moments of sentimentality and nostalgia but not much substance. It’s kind of like sitting down to a gigantic feast where only potatoes are served.

The Bronx Bombers
Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Closes: March 2

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.

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