Yogi Berra is well known for his career as a baseball player/manager and for his unique turns of phrase, but is he an ideal subject for a one-man play? Maybe — just not the one Tom Lysaght has written, Nobody Don’t Like Yogi, which has just opened at the Lamb’s Theatre.
Lysaght made two critical errors here. First, his script is far too reliant on Berra’s “Yogi-isms.” Are the sayings funny? Of course. They’ve obviously touched many people on some level; there are a number of web pages devoted to Berra’s utterances, from his most famous (and quite profound) “It ain’t over till it’s over” to his more infamous: “I want to thank you for making this day necessary,” “Baseball is 90% mental — the other half is physical,” “It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much,” and so on. But statements such as these, entertaining as they may be, aren’t inherently dramatic. They need to be worked into an in-depth character study or a tightly constructed plot. They can’t be the main attraction.
That’s Lysaght’s second mistake: He hasn’t created a plot so much as a concept. Berra returns to Yankee Stadium for the first time in years to make a speech upon receiving a plaque in Monument Park, but he gets there early so he’ll have time to work on the speech and tour his old stomping grounds. While doing so, he reminisces about his history with the team, his warm relationship with Casey Stengel, his run-ins with George Steinbrenner, and his family. He gives the speech, spends a few more moments in the stadium, and then leaves. There’s not much more to the play than that.
A piece with such restrictions can be worthy if the script is written with care and creativity. Witness Matthew Lombardo’s Tea at Five, another recent celebrity bioplay, this one about Katharine Hepburn. Lombardo managed to incorporate references to a host of Broadway and Hollywood heavyweights into a story that gave the solo performer things to really play — strong emotions, important goals, well-defined successes and failures. Lysaght’s Berra never gets that kind of an opportunity; Berra just relives moments and elucidates them for the audience, to the point of repeating the words of others that the audience can’t hear. This gets old after the first 10 minutes, with more than an hour still to go.
The show would be practically unbearable were it not for its Yogi, Broadway veteran Ben Gazzara. He looks quite a bit like the real Berra — costume designer Tony Walton’s thick spectacles and unassuming suit for Gazzara help out quite a bit — and comes across as such a lovable, straightforward man that all of his fractured sentiments feel organic to the character. It’s a remarkable achievement and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly; most actors, when faced with a script that delves this shallowly into its subject, couldn’t accomplish as much as Gazzara has.
The actor is so immersed in his characterization that it’s easy for us to be captivated by it, even if Gazzara can’t prevent us from wishing we’d were learning something — anything — about Berra that would justify this theatrical enterprise. As it is, Walton (who also designed the show’s fine Yankee Stadium set) and lighting designer Ken Billington do their usual professional work. Director Paul Linke keeps things moving steadily.
In holding the show together, Gazzara has the toughest job here. At least he looks like he’s having a good time; so did the audience at the performance I attended, especially when Gazzara hit one of the show’s many “Yogi-isms.” Still, anyone who comes to Nobody Don’t Like Yogi expecting much of a play will be disappointed.