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First Nighter: 'Bronx Bombers' Fields Yogi Berra Well Enough

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Eric Simonson, who gets his kicks writing plays about sports figures, is jumping the gun on Valentine's Day by sending a lavish Broadway card to now 88-year-old Yogi Berra. Bronx Bombers is what he calls the two-act Circle in the Square tribute, transferred from off-Broadway's Duke. And though devotees of completely satisfying scripts might not give it their unreserved seal of approval, dyed-in-the pin-stripes New York Yankees fans will likely go for it bigtime.

Not to be confused with Nobody Don't Like Yogi, Thomas Lysaght's 2003 one-man monologue (delivered by Ben Gazzara) that's set at Yankee Stadium on Old Timers' Day 1999, playwright-director Simonson's latest begins 22 years earlier in June, 1977. On that day Berra (Peter Scolari) invited Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) and Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) to his Boston Sheraton hotel suite, along with team captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes).

Self-proclaimed Yankees historians won't have to be reminded that the occasion follows on the day after the game from which Martin yanked (near pun intended) Jackson from the field for lazy playing. It's Berra's desire -- make that his obsession -- to reach some sort of reconciliation between the two men so that the team he loves and fears could fall apart will avoid such a development.

Though Simonson takes care to have Berra spout Yogi-isms (but not the most famous "Déjà vu all over again" variety) while bouncing around the room in a slightly bent posture, he's got more on his mind than merely presenting a thoroughly lovable figure -- the usual image most observers have, no matter how and when Berra clashed with the much less adorable George Steinbrenner.

The Berra barely able to sit still for more than a few seconds here is more of an out-and-out neurotic than the man is usually perceived to be in the sports press. His neurosis is strictly related to the survival of the Yankees and his worries that the outfit's glory days -- the years when Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard graced Yankee Stadium -- are in serious danger of ending.

Berra is inordinately disturbed at the dicey turn of events. When Jackson -- maintaining he's been hired to be Reggie Jackson and not a team player -- storms from the room without shaking Martin's hand or easing any of the established tension between Munson and him -- Berra suddenly imagines he hears the Babe speaking to him from out of the great beyond.

Which is how the first act ends, leading to an expansion of the illusion in the second act: Berra experiencing a full-fledged dream about the fabulous Yankees past. He's at a dinner catered by wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne). The expected guests, all of whom show up and engage with each other anachronistically, are Ruth (C. J. Wilson), Gehrig (John Wernke), DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Mantle (Dawes). Howard (Battiste) and Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson).

Simonson may be stretching things a bit with a long and linear dream the likes of which isn't entirely convincing, but he's on the right track in suggesting that Berra, needing to find a way to bring peace to his team, is letting his unconscious do the walking.

Freud would undoubtedly approve of the unconscious-at-work development. He might also lend credence to the outcome: The hero athletes don't hand Berra a solution but instead get into their own contretemps, the most agitated being between the taunting Mantle and the aloof DiMaggio. Their main disagreement? Which of them is the foremost homerun champs. Ruth in raccoon coat makes the best entrance, but Gehrig, when demonstrating Ruth's "sweet swing," has the finest moment.

Here's the spot to mention Beowulf Boritt's scenic design. Sending furniture up through the Circle in the Square floor and dropping paraphernalia from the fly -- often accompanied by sound designer Lindsay Jones's portentous music -- Boritt suspends an eye-catching chandelier over the dinner table in Berra's dream. Hanging from it are any number of round objects that may be glass baseballs. That's certainly what they resemble.

Whatever they are -- symbols of the fragility of baseball fame? -- they may not really have much to do with Simonson's point. He gets at that throughout his work and certainly in a 2008 coda, where he offers a perhaps too sentimental pronouncement. He believes that whatever temporary crises afflict Yankee esprit de corps, the outfit's long-term greatness will prevail and endure.

In other words, Berra needn't have worried. It'll all come right in the end because heroes are forever. And so, since the former catcher/manager needn't have gotten his pin-stripped knickers in such a twist, Simonson unwittingly undercuts his own dramatic intentions. Maybe it's not necessary but might not Simonson have wondered whether something deeper underlay Berra's pressing determination to keep dissension far from home plate?

In light of that, the extended second-act dream is hardly necessary. Or looked at another way, it could stand alone as an entertaining one-act jauntily bringing the most heralded Yankees together for a bit of fun. Moreover, it gives some mighty fine actors a chance to show what they can do.

Aside from Scolari's energetic Berra impersonation and Shayne's loyal and (in the dream) perky Carmen, Bill Dawes (a veteran of Simonson's Lombardi as Paul Hornung) is especially impressive impersonating a feisty and trouble-making Mantle. Taking on Howard, Battiste is as self-effacing as he is pumped up and brainy in Jackson's haircut and mustache. Wernke's Gehrig is touching, not least when evidencing the arterial lateral sclerosis (more commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease) that killed the him.

Then there's Keith Nobbs's Billy Martin. Another veteran of Lombardi, Nobb's tense Billy is theatrically charismatic, particularly when abruptly breaking down because worried the unseen Steinbrenner will fire him in response to the Jackson action. That Martin disappears once the first act concludes is a letdown. Simonson raises the what-happens-next-with-him question and then drops it just when onlookers are eager to know more.

It's never a good idea to tell a playwright what his play should have been, but maybe Simonson, or someone else, will delve into Martin's life for what it might divulge. In Bronx Bombers, it's Martin who appears to have more dramatic potential than the ever-appealing Berra.