This month must feel like deja vu all over again for playwright and director Eric Simonson (“Lombardi”), whose New York Yankees homage “Bronx Bombers” has just opened at Circle in the Square on the heels — um, better make that cleats — of an Off-Broadway premiere in the fall. Sharpened, but still dubiously crafted, “Bronx Bombers” is a jock drama that will appeal to any Yankees fanatic, but leave others restless in the bleachers.
Changes have been made to the lineup and elsewhere since “Bronx Bombers” previously came to bat. (Our earlier NBC4NY review is here.) In as Yankees icon Yogi Berra is Peter Scolari, the Emmy-winning actor who has lately turned up alongside Tom Hanks in last season’s “Lucky Guy” and on HBO’s “Girls.” Opposite Scolari, as Yogi’s wife Carmen, is the actor’s real-life spouse, Tracy Shayne.
A $3 million capitalization and marketing support from Major League Baseball have garnered a fully realized production design — in one nice bit, the Berra marital bed descends from the ceiling, revealing none other than … Mrs. Berra. But most important, the script has been tightened, lending needed clarity to its simple message: The Yankees organization has churned with personal drama since before the days of intrusive media and free agency, but ultimately, the team will thrive and the fans will maintain their bond.
In “Bronx Bombers,” Yogi Berra and wife Carmen are tour guides through a century of the team’s trials and triumphs. The first act unfolds in the aftermath of the famous 1977 dugout brawl between manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) and outfielder Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste). The second is a fantasy sequence that has Lou Gehrig (John Wernke) breaking bread with Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson) and a half-dozen other marquee players at a dinner party, sufficiently booze-stocked thanks to Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), who knows how to get the party started no matter the century.
Scolari doesn’t look much like Berra — Richard Topol, who portrayed the coach last fall at The Duke, was better suited to the role, physically. To compensate, he plays the part with a hunch and measured dialogue that mostly allows us to appreciate the familiar Yogiisms that Simonson has dredged up: “The doctors X-rayed my head and found nothing,” and so on. Shayne is best as a dolled-up hostess in the second act, holding her own in a roomful of uncouth athletes.
There are colorful performances from the committed ensemble, many doing double duty. Battiste struts like a peacock through the first act as “the immensity that is Reggie Jackson,” then tones things down later as Elston Howard, the first African-American to play for the team.
Wilson makes for a gangbusters Babe, bringing an electric charge to proceedings when he arrives for dinner in a man-fur that would make Joe Namath jealous. Wernke mostly inspires admiration as Gehrig, particularly when he recreates Ruth’s fluid home run swing for the awed dinner guests.
The excellent Bill Dawes is on hand as Thurman Munson and, later, a combustible Mickey Mantle. Chris Henry Coffey’s Joe DiMaggio is an uptight slugger ill-at-ease with his less-refined teammates. Jackson’s Derek Jeter is much like the real Derek Jeter: low-key, confident, in charge.
There are enjoyable exchanges between players that could only exist in a writer’s mind. One anachronistic moment has “The Mick” asking Jeter if he’s got a nickname: “Just Derek Jeter,” comes the reply. That line drew laughter from retired catcher Jorge Posada, who sat a few rows away from me during a recent press performance, and who is mentioned in the play when talk of the “Murderer’s Row” from the 1920s turns to the “The Core Four” of the 1990s.
The same maudlin elements of “Bronx Bombers” that were troublesome last fall return to haunt Simonson’s story the second time around. There are the awkward allusions to 9/11, which Jeter is charged with explaining to the older players. Gehrig’s ALS is played for sympathy, but serves little purpose otherwise. Ditto for the nods to DiMaggio’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe and Munson’s death in a plane crash.
We get the feeling that Simonson doesn’t trust his story enough to carry us through, so instead hits us over the head with facts ripped from some “Dummy’s Guide to Baseball.” Seasoned theatergoers will take umbrage at the heavy-handed storytelling and rampant fanboyism.
“Bronx Bombers” was clearly appreciated by the (mixed-gender, liquor-swilling) audience the evening I was there. If Simonson is going to write plays that open up theatergoing to an underserved segment — aside from “Lombardi,” there was also “Magic/Bird” — then more power to him. “Damn Yankees” this is not, but it may keep sports fans distracted until spring training.
“Bronx Bombers,” with an open-ended run at the Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St. Tickets: $67-$137. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn