PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Bronx Bombers — Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

By Harry Haun
February 7, 2014

Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the new sports drama Bronx Bombers.

*

Babe Ruth's 119th birthday was marked indirectly Feb. 6 at Circle in the Square with a celebratory do called Bronx Bombers, a bit of manly sentimentality deifying his old home team. It was held at Carmen and Yogi Berra's place in Jersey, and the guest list was a Wheaties wet-dream: Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Derek Jeter, Elston Howard, Mickey Mantle and, arriving grandly late and loud, the birthday boy himself.

In your dreams, Yogi! And, actually, it is: The second act that Eric Simonson has concocted and directed for Bronx Bombers finds Yogi, fearing George Steinbrenner will upgrade him from coach to manager of the then-fractious New York Yankees, dreaming up this ultimate Old Timers Game — a cross-generational pinstripe parade congregating under the same celestial/suburban roof where these immortals mostly sit around, pitch the ball about and discuss what it means to be a Yankee. They come with old baseball scores to settle and lots of individual baggage for the show 'n' tell.

What brought on Yogi's ultimate dream-team dream was more of a foul ball than a spicy meatball. It's the summer of '77, and he's had a bad day at work trying to reconcile volatile manager Billy Martin, with the star right-fielder he threw out of the game for "malingering," Reggie Jackson. Team captain Thurman Munson joins the fray to try to bring them to a semblance of good sportsmanship and team spirit.

The opening inning is a fast game of hardball in which Yogi, with a full load of his known non-sequesters and malaprops, plays improbable peacemaker for Martin and Jackson, assisted not too sincerely by Munson, paroling the make-nice talks like a pit-bull. Act Two begins with a layer of fog on the stage, setting the tone for a fantasy feed in which Yankee immortals from different eras come to break bread.

What does the thoughtful hostess serve this gathering of greats? Carmen Berra offers them a full liquor cabinet and everything you can do to a potato: Baked potatoes, scalloped potatoes, mashed potatoes, potato soup — it seems Yogi misspoke to a North Dakota farmer, insisting that Iowa is the potato state and there weren't enough potatoes in North Dakota to fill his front lawn. Hence, the 23 tons of potatoes filling his front lawn.

The advantage of having players from different periods converse tickles the brain of the baseball buff. Gehrig, who checked out in June of '41, requires a lot of updating ("What's a TV?" "World War II?"). And when the conversation turns to money, the old guys who've been crowning about their hundreds or their thousands do a collective double-take when Derek Jeter mentions millions. Another jock joke: Every one of the players has a nickname, and Derek Jeter's nickname is DerekJeter.

We're in a "Field of Dreams" here, and Simonson has built an affectionate fantasy out of Yankee lore, just to see who will come. Many may. Bronx Bombers marks the first Broadway partnership of the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball. Splashing the Yankee logo and trademark around The Great White Way assures, if nothing else, that the facts and pinstripes will be straight and authentic.



View the Entire Photo Gallery
The Cast
Photo by Monica Simoes


 

The power of the pinstripes is not to be underestimated. The closing tableau of the Yankee legends line up in a row — 1, 2, 3, the discontinued 4, 5, 8, 32, 44 — is a heart-sweller, even for grown men. In showbiz parlance, this is going for the pow finish.

The actors who don the uniforms don't get off — or take it — lightly or easily.

"There is just something about those pinstripes," insisted Derek Jeter — er, Christopher Jackson. "That's the best suit in the entire city, let me tell ya!"

Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs, a fairly recent convert to the pinstripes) concurred: "When we did the show Off-Broadway, they didn't have Billy in that last section of The Immortals when they come out at the very end. Then, they finally decided to put Billy in, and it really is amazing. When you put on those pinstripes, something really does happen to you. You feel part of history, and you feel part of a legacy."

Chris Henry Coffey and Bill Dawes
photo by Monica Simoes

Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey) vowed that he would never climb back into "that pinstriped monkey suit" when he retired, so he's the last to suit up in the play. "There's a real change that happens to you physiologically, I think, when you put the uniform on," Coffey contended. "I strangely feel like I have played every time that I come off stage. It's a bizarre feeling. We've all talked about it, actually."

"Can you imagine the girls I could pick up with Mickey Mantle's uniform?" proffered Bill Dawes, who pops up a bit woozy in the second act as Mantle. "I didn't want it to be cartoonish, but, for a man who lived like him, five drinks — if he came in with a couple — are enough to get in a place where he makes some bad decisions. I didn't want him to be sloppy. I wanted him to be a man who could still carry himself, but it's enough that he might do things he'd regret that he wouldn't do if he were sober." 

Dawes spends the first act as hard-nosed manager Munson, trying to not let his antagonism toward Jackson tip Yogi's delicate peace-making mission. "The first and second acts are very different pieces," he pointed out. "The first scene is just a straightforward, four-people-in-a-hotel-room scene and all the drama and all the different arguments going on. It's like an acting-class scene where there are big stakes."

Nobbs and Dawes are beginning to think of Circle in the Square as "Circle in the Simonson." They did his Lombardi there when it was a football field, and now it's a baseball field.

"You know what's interesting about the space?" offered Simonson. "For Lombardi, it looked like a football field. Now you go in there, because it's a baseball play, you just know you're in a stadium. It's oval-shaped, but it's still in the round."

"I love that theatre," Dawes said. "I love acting in the round. It's freedom for an actor because you can kinda exist in space." Nobbs seconded that and raised him one: "It's my favorite theatre in New York. There's something about the energy of it that all pours into the center, and it feels so intimate because the seats are all spread out."

As the highly combustible Martin, Nobbs is the first firecracker to go off in the play.

"I really love his passion because you see a side of Billy that's fiery and crazy, but also Billy's fighting the good fight for the game he believes in, and he has such a legitimate point of view in terms of how you have to be part of a team. I love telling the truth about that, and also, as an actor, trying to tell the truth about the chaos that's going on inside of him. He was paranoid, but it was because he had such tremendous feeling. To try to tell that without commenting on it was the trick."

Coming down from On High to do battle with testy wire-terrier Martin is a diva-like Jackson, played with assurance and arrogance to spare by Francois Battiste, who drew exit applause on opening night. "Tonight," he said, "is a culmination of a lot of emotions. We, as actors, are just trying to deliver the story like any other night, and we're riding on so much emotion because it was a long haul for this particular play."

He knew the person to credit for the crackling good time he has on stage. "That's Eric Simonson," he said. "Eric Simonson wrote some very taut dialogue and can create a conflict on stage. That's why people go to the theatre ultimately: To see somebody try to work a problem out. These guys all believe that they're right, and it just so happens to be in the framework of the Yankees in a baseball play."

In Act Two, Battiste shows up for dinner as Elston Howard, the first African-American Yankee. His widow, Arlene, attended the Broadway premiere. "I met her at the Off-Broadway opening. When I went up to shake her hand, the first words out of her mouth were: 'You did Elston proud.' When she said that, everything else went by the wayside because you're just trying to pay homage to the man. You try to find their truth and speak their truth within the two hours you have to portray them."

The Berras also made the Off-Broadway opening but skipped the one on Broadway, sending instead their son, Larry, who conveyed his parents' pleasure with the show.

Battiste still remembers the Berras sitting in the front row, drinking it all in. "Oh, man, talk about surreal! We were watching the guy playing Yogi, and there was the real Yogi right behind him. We were in the round, and we couldn't necessarily close ourselves off to a fourth wall. The fact that they were there gave a gravitas to the project in itself, and it just made us want to do our jobs that much better."

Tracy Shayne and Peter Scolari
Photo by Monica Simoes

Peter Scolari is the third Yogi in a row for this particular play, and his wife, Tracy Shayne, plays Carmen. Both actors made a point of getting to the couple they play.

"I fell in love with her right away, and she did with me, too," trilled Shayne. "I guess I shouldn't be so bold as to say that, but she did say, 'Oh, my goodness, you're me 50 years ago.' That's not so true, of course, but she's just a wonderful, vibrant woman."

Scolari does a splendid and thorough job of fielding the many tics, twitches and eccentricities that add up to Yogi Berra, physicalizing the character in a highly creative way. This is the lovable loose-cannon at the heart of the show, and the actor makes him a fairly constant source of fun. And in the coda that ends the play — the closing of the House That Ruth Built — he leaves a poignant last impression.

"It's a little tricky for him to get around," Scolari said of the 88-year-old Berra, "but he doesn't miss a trick. We may make a special accommodation the day he arrives."

Yogi Berra is the second real-live New Yorker that Scolari has brought to Broadway in the past ten months. "Playing Michael Daly in Lucky Guy, I got to meet him and found him gracious, but not forthcoming so I drew him out to the best of my abilities. Of course, your first obligation is to the text — the written word on the page that the playwright supplies for you — not some biographical obligation that you have to Daly as he may be known away from the text. If you can beg, borrow or steal something from the man — and I did — then more power to you."

Writer-director Simonson admitted he had his share of baseball cards growing up, "but they're long lost. I didn't keep 'em." The lore and the knowledge rubbed off and remained, however,and he augmented that by "reading at least 20 biographies." The result is a play that allows him to take rumblings of a festering, but unexpressed, feud between DiMaggio and Mantle — even Gehrig and Ruth — extra innings to dramatic fruition.

"Since the original Off-Broadway run, I feel like I rewrote a lot," he said. "What I've done is I've asked a lot of people who saw the Primary Stages production and this production, and said, 'What have you noticed?' What they told me is that it's gotten better. Which is a step in the right direction, right?... I've included Babe Ruth more in the first act, but I did most of the work in the second act, finessing this long and complicated scene that involves all the Yankees. I was trying to do five things at once with this scene. Seeing it over and over again at Primary Stages and hearing the audiences' reaction allowed me to go over and really tinker with that. I think that's where most of the changes came in."

John Wernke is aware that his role in the proceedings — "Iron Man" Gehrig — has an undisguisable saintly side. "It's always fun to play bad guys, but sometimes it's fun to make a really good guy," he said. "I think that Eric is really focusing a lot on Lou and Thurman Munson — guys who did not get to live out their legacy."

Francois Battiste and C.J.Wilson
photo by Monica Simoes

C.J. Wilson brings plenty of gruff bluster and outsized chutzpah to The Babe. "I've loved studying him and getting to know so much about him. It's been a labor of love researching him." And, yes, he knew whose birthday it was. "I don't look a day over 118."

On your way out of Circle in the Square, in the lobby, you can see the 1977 World Series Trophy that the New York Yankees won after Yogi's weird dream.

The bill of fare at the Edison Ballroom after-party showed the ballpark influence: Jumbo hotdogs, meat and chicken sliders, several pastas and mac and cheese.

First-nighters were a festive mix of sports and showbiz: Gregg Edelman, off next week to film "Air Disturbance," an in-flight horror-show; "The Television Voice of the Yankees," Michael Kay, and his newscaster-anchor wife, Jodi Applegate; Big Fish's Kate Baldwin and Mamma Mia's Graham Rowat, sans their Little Leaguer; Yankee outfielder from 1965 to 1979, Roy White; the Bullets Over Broadway contingent (Karen Ziemba, six-foot-five Nick Cordero, Lenny Wolpe and Betsy Wolfe); a trio of MLB Network hosts/reporters (Brian Kenny, Heidi Watney and Greg Amsinger); Leap of Faith's Jessica Phillips; Twister Sister singer Dee Snider and his wife, Suzette; MLB pitcher Dan Plesac; Lysistrata Jones' Josh Segarra; sportscaster Dave Valle; Dan Grimaldi of "The Sopranos" and his sister, Louise; Yankee infielder from 1962 to 1968, Phil Linz; Rock of Ages' Rebecca Faulkenberry; Fox entertainment reporter Tom Murro; and Natalie Roy of "Conduct Unbecoming."