Conceived by Joe Mantegna.
Written by The Organic Theatre Company.
With Special Consultant Jerry Pritikin, the “Bleacher Preacher.”
Directed by Nich Radcliffe.
Produced by Open Space Theatre company.
Playing at The Broadway Theater of the Pride Arts Center, Chicago.
Take Me Out.
Those who happen to fall into the category of both die-hard Cubs fan and lover of homegrown Chicago theatre might be in for an eventful fall this year, as not only are the Cubs favored to win the World Series but the “Chicago classic comedy” Bleacher Bums, complete with a semi-revised script, is playing now through the end of baseball season. Offering a glimpse into the annual struggle of five incorrigible Cubs fans (and inveterate gamblers), Bleacher Bums attempts to show that there are more important things than winning: friendship and dedication. Those who don’t fall passionately into this category, however, are likely to find themselves tearfully bored as this plodding production is only rarely funny and its hair strand of a “plot” is easily overlooked under Radcliffe’s loose direction and some disconnected performances.
Bleacher Bums puts us in the outfield bleachers where five “friends” have gathered to spectate on the Cubs’ first game in the 1997 series against their “dreaded arch rivals” The Cardinals. We meet Decker (Colin Jones), a good-hearted, true-blue Cubs fan; Richie (Max Downs), Decker’s socially (if not mentally) challenged scorekeeper; Greg (Israel Antonio), a blind man with an endearing, passionate enthusiasm for the Cubs; Zig (Amy Sunshine), a woman whose love of the game is only outweighed by her love of gambling; and Marvin (Zach Finch), a mean-spirited, consummate gambler whose allegiance is only to winning — money. Also present (in body if not personality) is Melody (Katherine Bellantone), who seems there more to sunbathe in her bikini than follow the game.
While the “plot” in this production is secondary to the comedy, there is indeed one present. As Decker, Zig, and Marvin continually bet — on who will win, what the end-score will be, whether so-and-so will make first base, etc. — Richie begins to feel left out, as Decker discourages him from gambling on account he doesn’t have the money to lose. This eventually upsets Richie, and Marvin, seeing some kind of an opportunity, turns Richie to his side by buddying-up with him. In the end, however, after Melody has been humiliated over a secret bet to get her phone number, Marvin belittles Richie (to put it mildly), thereby motivating him to make an outrageous bet he cannot cover. Richie loses, but the conclusion shows us the friendly and forgiving spirit of a Cubs fan, whose familiarity with losing has instilled a deep and universal empathy.
Open Space Theater’s production of Bleacher Bums is something close to an embarrassing mess. With missed cues, spiritless pacing, hammy deliveries, and one of the most egregiously overacted performances I have ever seen, it felt more like an understudy dress rehearsal than opening day at a baseball series.
I can only imagine that Open Space thought a production of Bleacher Bums would be a commercial guarantee given its timeliness because, apart from the elaborate bleacher set, very little thought seems to have gone into this show. The most apparent and pervasive misstep in the production is its failure to make the baseball game a visceral reality. With no other crowd sounds other than the actors, the setting felt empty and devoid of energy; and the actors themselves, apart from Erik Burke as the zealously impassioned Cheerleader, brought little conviction to the game’s reality and only intermittent enthusiasm for its progress — and when there was action occurring on the field the actors oftentimes looked in different directions! (Was this supposed to be funny?) Moreover, the Wrigley Field scoreboard was a static projection of a JPEG image, so it never changed score, batter, count — anything. Why? A commentary on the sometimes-interminable feeling of baseball games? A la Beckett’s “Waiting for Santo”?
As far as performances, there’s sadly very little to highlight. Colin Jones is passable as Decker and even demonstrates some nice comedic delivery, but he seemed to completely check-out whenever he wasn’t speaking (an issue I found with some of the other actors, as well). Max Downs’ performance as Richie, while funny at times, is so broadly acted that it appeared rehearsed for a different production of the same play, as most the performances were naturalistic. Amy Sunshine, on the other hand, makes such painfully over-the-top efforts to be convincing as Zig that she inspires no laughs whatsoever, only wincing cringes. The most immersive performances were given by Zach Finch as Marvin and Erik Burke as the Cheerleader: the former was subtle, the latter anything but, yet both were entertaining and demonstrated a conviction that made the setting of a baseball game more real for me. Altogether, though, a mélange of spotty and varied performances that never really fit together.
I have significant doubts that an actual Cubs fan would get more out of this production than a person who doesn’t follow baseball, particularly because the humor centers on scenarios and character types that are familiar even outside the baseball park. But perhaps there were Cubs references I missed that would make this production more . . . amusing? Nevertheless, at nearly two long hours with minimal comedic payoff, Open Space Theater’s production of Bleacher Bums makes a bad case to spend money at a fake baseball game where the Cubs lose. With the season looking as promising as it is, one would be better advised to put their money toward a ticket for an actual game.
Reviewed on 24 September 2016.
Playing at The Broadway Theater of the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. Tickets are $30 for Reserved Seating and $20 for General Admission. For tickets and information, call 1800-838-3006, or visit BrownPaperTickets.com. Performances are Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through November 6th. Running time is 100 minutes with no intermission.