What do you do when you have a flash of a dinner party with an iconic guest lists of baseball greats – Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig etc. – but you have no story to go along with it?
You write a play and hope that audience members will focus on the former and not notice the latter. Or at least that is what happened here.
Here’s how this one shakes out. Scene One: Seems as though back in 1977 there was a kafuffle in Yankee land when The Yankees Manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) pulled Reggie Jackson (Francois Battist) from a game on account of Reggie didn’t hustle on a certain play. This lead to Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari), The Yankee’s coach, calling for a meeting of the two with the added insurance of Thurman Munson (Bill Dawe), the then captain. According to this version, that meeting didn’t pan out so very well. Jackson was not a team player – literally or figuratively. He was “to bring the immensity that is Reggie Jackson” to the Yankees and not just a member of a team – certainly not a lacky at the beck and call of the likes of Billy Martin. Martin was on a collision course of his own, living with the shadow of George Steinbrenner looming large. If the Yankees didn’t pull it together, Martin was certain that Steinbrenner would give him the ax. Munson just wanted to win. And he wanted his knees to stop hurting.
We get a lot of lore in this show – like the time Casey Stengel tried to pull Joe DiMaggio from a game. DiMaggio sent the replacement player back to the dugout and refused to leave the field. He and Stengel never spoke to one another again. Or the time Billy Martin got traded to Kansas City and Stengel didn’t lift a finger to help him. How Charlie Finlay (owner of the A’s) was crazier than George Steinbrenner. How Reggie Jackson was known for running his mouth the press without checking in with management.
After this fiasco meeting of the four men, the upshot of which is Jackson pledging to obey Martin on the field but that off the field he is his own man, period – we zoom to Yogi and his wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne). They are at their house in Montclair, New Jersey.
It is just before the annual Old-Timers Dinner the Berra’s hosted, and someone has dumped a few tons of potatoes on their lawn. A few months before Yogi was at a charity event in North Dakota, and made the mistake of marveling at the God Forsaken state – what do people do in North Dakota??? When his driver mentioned the production of potatoes, Yogi replied that he thought they all came from Idaho. The driver took such exception to this that he arranged for the lawn delivery. While Yogi and Carmen are commiserating about the state of the 1977 team, the potatoes, and the toll that baseball can take on a person, the scene morphs into the Old Timers Dinner.
This dinner-dream, which Carmen says can only last one hour, is not just any dinner, however, because the guest list includes men in period pinstripes who are not living any longer – Babe Ruth (C. J. Wilson) and Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), as well as one who was born in 1974 but shows up as a full blown adult – Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson). The living are also present – Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes), Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey) and Jackson Elston Howard (Francois Battiste). Everyone has been summoned by Carmen to talk to Yogi about the dilemma of the 1977 team, but the conversation soon dissolves into reminiscing. More lore here – Mantle was named after Mickey Cochrane, an American League MVP. How Yogi was quoted after being hit in the 1953 World Series “The doctors x-rayed my head and found nothing.” Mantle blames baseball’s decline on the 1960’s – it was a bad decade. The advent of Free Agency. Money: Lou Gehrig made $3,000 his fist year. DiMaggio’s standoff over salary with Jacob Ruppert who owned the Yankees at that time. The Babe Ruth Lou Gehrig feud. Babe grew up in an orphanage and had a swing that was the envy of his entire team. Elston, the first black player on the Yankees, was an All Star 12 times, won six champion rings, two Gold Gloves and was MVP – but no one remembers him except Baseball aficionados.
Not the way people remember Reggie Jackson, iin other words, and yes the Jackson/Mitchell topic is twirled around the dance floor here and there. But in general the conversation is dominated by opinion and reminiscence and even talk of the future: 1994 Baseball strike and 9/11.
We close with an Mark Birkett (Keith Nobbs) talking to Yogi before the final game at Yankee Stadium The First. We learn that Thurmond Munson died in 1979 when the plane he was flying crashed. More lore. Eventually we are told that Munson’s locker will come to the new Stadium to take its place next to Jeeter’s.
In short every baseball anecdote that Mr. Simonson can think of is stuffed into this script. So there really is no room for a story. Which is too bad because without a story, there is nothing to keep our interest – except this FANTASTIC cast who does make you think that what you are seeing is actually happening. But no amount of their fancy footwork can load the bases or bring home the runs. This one is a snooze.
Written and directed by Eric Simonson; conceived by Fran Kirmser
WITH: Peter Scolari (Yogi Berra), Francois Battiste (Reggie Jackson/Elston Howard), Chris Henry Coffey (Joe DiMaggio), Bill Dawes (Thurman Munson/Mickey Mantle), Christopher Jackson (Bobby Sturges/Derek Jeter), Keith Nobbs (Billy Martin/Mark Birkett), Tracy Shayne (Carmen Berra), John Wernke (Lou Gehrig) and C. J. Wilson (Babe Ruth).
Sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by David C. Woolard; lighting by Jason Lyons; music and sound by Lindsay Jones; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; production stage manager, Adam John Hunter; production manager, Aurora Productions; general manager, Richards/Climan. Presented by Ms. Kirmser, Tony Ponturo, Quinvita and Primary Stages, in association with the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball Properties. At the Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.