NEW YORK (AP) — The first sign a major knuckleball is coming in the baseball play "Bronx Bombers" is when the smoke machines crank up.
Until then, Eric Simonson's script is an unremarkable behind-the-scenes look at a moment in 1977 when the New York Yankees were in crisis. Their star player, Reggie Jackson, was brawling with the team's manager, Billy Martin, and clubhouse morale was at a low point.
Then the central figure in this drama — Yogi Berra, trying to keep the team together as a coach — starts hearing ghosts in his bedroom and the swirling smoke kicks in. The Babe — Babe Ruth, naturally — then suddenly stands there in his pinstripes with a bat. Of course. Who doesn't have this exact same dream?
The next scene, which opens Act 2, is perhaps one of the most improbable and downright silly moments to be put onstage this season: A fancy dinner with some Yankee greats from the past and present. Babe Ruth! Mickey Mantle! Lou Gehrig! Joe DiMaggio! Derek Jeter? Wait, what?
That snapping sound you hear is the sudden end of Simonson's two-and-a-half plays grounded in realism and his entry into the surreal. A play that was becoming the Yogi Berra story — featuring a super Peter Scolari wringing every emotion from the script heroically — has now turned into the daydreams of an 11-year-old.
If you've ever wanted to know what Mantle would tell Gehrig, this is the play for you. (For the record, it's "pleasure to meet you, sir. I, um, I came up just after you.") The Yankee immortals all trade war stories, salary details, free agency tales and grouse over the increasingly invasive media. They eat potatoes. They continue to wear their uniforms, cleats and all.
They also say things like "baseball's the best damn thing that ever happened to this country" and reveal this secret for their success: "A Yankee's got to be a Yankee." Among these athletic giants is Yogi's wife, Carmen, (an underused Tracy Shayne), likely wondering why she got cast in this dream — and this play.
Eventually, DiMaggio threatens to leave — prompting the almost required "Joe, don't go!" — and Gehrig physically weakens before our eyes, a crass reminder of the disease that will kill him. The madness ends with him recreating the weakened stance he held while bidding farewell to the Yankees. It's a maudlin turn for something that's already half-baked.
"Bronx Bombers," which opened Thursday at the Circle in the Square Theater, is the third sports-related play to make it to Broadway from producing team Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, following "Lombardi," about football icon Vince Lombardi, and "Magic/Bird," about the friendship between basketball legends Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird.
Simonson, who wrote all three, this time also directs "Bronx Bombers," and he does so with such reverence to the baseball franchise that it veers into fairy tale. Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees put money in the show, and it shows. The play played off-Broadway last year and has been tweaked since then, but not enough to make it more than Yankee advertising.
Ruth (played by C.J. Wilson like a sort of W.C. Fields) is brash and ready to party; Mantle (Bill Dawes, who also plays Thurman Munson) is a jokey hothead; DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey) is squinty and haughty; Elston Howard is polite but frustrated (a good Francois Battiste, who also earlier plays a terrific Jackson); and Gherig (John Wernke) who seems a bit like a confused hick ("What's TV?" he asks at one point, since he died in 1941. In another scene he blurts out: "World War II?" Wait until he finds out about the Red Sox's recent resurgence.)
After the head-scratching dinner scene, the play fast-forwards to the Yankee locker room in 2008 on the last game in the old Yankee Stadium and resumes its low-key, grounded-in-reality air. Yogi's back again and so is Jeter (Christopher Jackson, this time apparently not an apparition.)
There's a lot of hat-tipping, swelling moments and it seems like we in the audience should get teary and sentimental. "It's about the people, not the building," Berra says sagely. But it's also about the drama, and, in this case, the play strikes out looking.