Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“The ghosts of baseball past serve up a feast for the soul in Eric Simonson’s BRONX BOMBERS!”
Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) in Eric Simonson’s “Bronx Bombers” is spot on: much of his bombastic rhetoric in the meeting in a hotel room in the Boston Sheraton in 1977 with Yogi Berra, Thuman Munson, and Billy Martin is “a metaphor.” Indeed, Mr. Simonson’s powerful play is an extended metaphor for the rewards of struggle, triumph over adversity, and managing crisis at the crossroads of life.
The lengthy but important first act of “Bronx Bombers” provides the exposition of the play’s dramatic structure. The audience is reminded of the tension between newcomer Reggie Jackson and Yankees Manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) and Yogi Berra’s attempts to defuse the contention and return all parties involved back to the business of baseball. The parallels with Washington bickering and the refusal of Congress to get back to the business of governing are deeply powerful and intensely impelling. Baseball in 1977 was not in crisis because of free-agency: the United States in 2013 is not in crisis because of the Affordable Care Act. Both “franchises” experience crisis because of puerile quarreling and failure to honor their traditions and heroes.
The second act is a tantalizing fantasy sequence which takes place around the Berra’s dining table and is one of the most sensitive and passionate appeals imaginable. Playwright Eric Simonson skillfully utilizes all the rhetorical strategies for persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. When the heroic “ghosts of baseball past” join the greats of baseball present, the result is an emotional meltdown on and off stage. Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes), Elston Howard (Francois Battiste), Babe Ruth (C. J. Wilson), Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), and Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey) remind the Berras and the audience of the struggles they had (salary, racism, acceptance), of their triumphs over those adversities, and how they impeded the crossroads that faced them. Their collective history consecrates the importance of teamwork and rehearses with dignity and grace the mantra “friends in need are friends indeed.”
The ensemble cast of “Bronx Bombers” delivers a grand slam making Eric Simonson’s play a winner at the Duke. Christopher Jackson is an energetic Derek Jeter; Keith Nobbs is a frenetic and bombastic Billy Martin; Francois Battiste is a brilliant and combative Reggie Jackson; and Wendy Makkena brings eloquence and empathy to her portrayal of Carmen Berra. Richard Topol could not be more perfect as Yogi Berra as he tries to reconcile tensions between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin and navigate the changes in major league baseball and in society at large. “Things break apart,” Yogi shares regretfully in the second act’s emotional fantasy sequence. Things aren’t “what they used to be.”
Beowulf Boritt’s set depicts “The House that Ruth Built” as a brooding presence overlooking the demolition of dreams. David C. Woolard’s costumes – including impeccable period Yankee uniforms – and Jason Lyons’ lighting serve both reality and fantasy with craft and discernment.
In the fantasy sequence, Joe DiMaggio leaves the repast and returns in his Yankee uniform to remind his colleagues living and dead that “baseball will always be okay.” One wonders if our beloved nation will always be “okay” unless those who represent the people – like the Yankees’ owners, managers, captains, and players – focus on the future and the commitment it takes to reach that future with dignity and strength. Thurman Munson’s last words before he died in a fiery plane crash were, “Are you guys okay?” That question reverberates over the decades and awaits, even now, a hope-filled response.