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Bronx Bombers

They might not be in the playoffs, but thanks to Primary Stages, the Yankees are still around for a few more weeks.

Christopher Jackson as Derek Jeter, John Wernke as Lou Gehrig, Richard Topol as Yogi Berra, and C.J. Wilson as Babe Ruth in the Primary Stages production of Bronx Bombers.
(© James Leynse)

Is there a better month than October? The blazers and scarves reappear in your wardrobe. The leaves crackle under your feet as you sip a pumpkin-spice latte. And for a few glorious nights, you can sit at home and revel in the magic of that 110-year-old tradition, the World Series. For New Yorkers, it's made even better by the presence of the Yankees, a team that introduced names like Ruth and Gehrig and Berra and Jeter into the American lexicon.

Alas, the Yankees are missing from the Fall Classic this year, but fear not. Thanks to Primary Stages, Fran Kirmser, and Tony Ponturo, they're still, for a few more weeks anyway, stealing home plate at The Duke on 42nd Street in Eric Simonson's Bronx Bombers. The third entry in Simonson's anthology of sports plays (the first two were Broadway's Lombardi and Magic/Bird), this one is by far the most enjoyable, thanks to fiery performances and a tone that abandons stuffy seriousness in favor of the fantastical.

Bronx Bombers opens on June 19, 1977, the morning after a catastrophic dugout confrontation at Fenway Park between Yankees star player Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) and manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs), an exchange that was not only televised in its entirety but threatened to throw the franchise into peril. Yogi Berra (Richard Topol), the former player and now coach, takes it upon himself to organize a meeting between the puffed-up Jackson and the intensely energetic Martin, with team captain Thurmon Munson (Bill Dawes) there for guidance. It doesn't end well.

It takes a great deal of skill to imagine and dramatize history in an engaging way, especially when we know the outcome (the Yanks win the 1977 World Series), and Simonson here manages to make this meeting not only engaging but edge-of-your-seat compelling. This is thanks in part to his simple staging (the actors prowl around the playing space like jungle animals) and intense performances from his cast, the sweet Topol, stately Dawes, righteous Battiste, and downright frightening Nobbs (clad in a cowboy hat and boots designed with great accuracy by David C. Woolard).

The meeting goes nowhere. Jackson leaves to organize a press conference. Berra is frightened that this may spell the end of the great Yankees. Act 2 takes the turn into fantasy and becomes a Yankee fan's dream come true, an even-more-imagined meeting (in fact, Yogi's dream) between team greats of past and present. There's Lou Gehrig (John Wernke, heartbreaking), suffering the effects of the disease that will not only cut short his career but kill him in his prime. Babe Ruth (a barnstorming C.J. Wilson) enters in a fur coat and gets the cushy seat. Joe DiMaggio (the stately Chris Henry Coffey) holds court in the center. And Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson, very good) shares his piece about the Yankees of 2013. (The affecting Wendy Makkena completes the cast as Yogi's wife, Carmen.)

If you're a fan of baseball (with the best of all sports histories) or if you've ever wondered what it would be like to get all the greats in a room together and pick their brains, Bronx Bombers is worthy of your attention. They might not be the real thing, but these players come awfully close. And it makes the wait until the new season a little bit more bearable.


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