Is baseball a sport people care about a full two months before the season starts? Producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo certainly think so. With the February arrival of Bronx Bombers, Eric Simonson's theatrical exploration of the New York Yankees and its legacy, Kirmser and Ponturo have transformed Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre into a veritable amusement park for fans of the national pastime. Upon entering the lower lobby, audience members have the opportunity to pose for photos in a replicated locker, sit in chairs from the old stadium, and purchase autographed memorabilia. They even get to see a play, although that might be the least thrilling part of the evening.
When it ran off-Broadway last fall, under the auspices of Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street, Bronx Bombers was an enjoyable look at perhaps the greatest team ever. Easy to swallow and arguably the most theatrical of Simonson's sports-themed dramas (a list that also includes Lombardi and Magic/Bird), it was perfect for the environment of a not-for-profit theater with a built-in audience of subscribers and a house of under 200 seats. But the floodlights are a lot brighter on Broadway and, with 800 chairs to fill, the stakes are a lot higher. What was once a sweet, well-meaning journey through history now just reminds us of the 2013 Yankees lineup: not the best.
And it's a shame, because Bronx Bombers has a killer first scene. Set on June 19, 1977, the play opens on the morning after a damaging dugout fight at Fenway Park during which Yankees star outfielder Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) was pulled from the game by volatile manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs). This heated confrontation, televised for the entire country to see, exemplified the franchise's nearly decade-long "Bronx Zoo" era of egos, rowdiness, and a handful of World Series championships.
Former player and present coach Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari) has taken it upon himself to organize a meeting between "the immensity" that is Jackson and the explosive Martin, with team captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes) on hand for guidance. The meeting doesn't turn out so well. Yogi, possessed by the idea that he could possibly become manager if Martin gets fired, goes home to his wife, Carmen (Tracy Shayne), and, in his own bedroom, starts seeing visions of former Yankees.
In the rest of the play, Simonson abandons the kitchen-sink realism of the opening for a more fantastical tone. The literal exemplification of a Whom would you invite to an imaginary dinner party? trope of Act 2 focuses on Yogi's dream, during which he and Yankee greats Elston Howard (Battiste), Mickey Mantle (Dawes), Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson), Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), and Lou Gehrig (John Wernke) dine at the Berra home to solve the problem of the team.
It's here where Bronx Bombers strikes out. While Simonson has improved the first act to more appropriately set up the second, the concept, fun as it is as each Yankee player arrives, lacks dramatic heft and, on the larger stage, resembles weak fan fiction of the What would these ballplayers from different generations say to each other? variety. (Example: Babe Ruth looks at Elston Howard, the Yankees' first African-American player, and asks if he's on the Negro League Black Yankees team.) Similarly, in questionable moments that almost boggle the mind, we watch as Gehrig goes (right before our eyes) from young and virile to crippled by the disease that will later bear his name and end both his career and life (to Wernke's credit, he's quite affecting).
Of the remaining portrayals, Battiste, all swagger, and Nobbs, of scary intensity, fare best, particularly in the opening scene, and show a marked growth from their work off-Broadway. Shayne, taking over for Wendy Makkena, is moving as Carmen, giving a helluva How'd they do that? entrance from Beowulf Boritt's completely automated set. Scolari, replacing Richard Topol, gives Yogi a big, innocent heart but is saddled with a mannered, hunched-over walk (to look more authentic, one would assume) and way too many of Berra's trademark Yogi-isms. In David C. Woolard's generation-spanning costumes, Dawes, Jackson, Coffey, and Wilson make for appealing ballplayers.
As directed by the author himself, Bronx Bombers never lives up to the potential of the first scene, and one can't help but wish the entire play focused on the simmering tensions between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin. As evidenced by the myriad books written about the Yankees in the 1970s, from Sparky Lyle's first-person account The Bronx Zoo to Jonathan Mahler's tremendous Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, the era was rife with dramatic tension. It's too bad that Bronx Bombers has exceedingly little.