Given that most one-man shows come across like acting auditions or show-off party pieces, it’s worth noting that two of the few sterling examples of this lackluster dramatic form — “The Belle of Amherst” with Julie Harris and “Clarence Darrow” with Henry Fonda — were both produced by Don Gregory. The producer’s radar is still tracking with this emotionally rewarding and terrifically entertaining bio-drama by Tom Lysaght, which captures baseball legend Yogi Berra on that momentous day in 1999 when he returned to Yankee Stadium for the first time in 14 years. Production values on this vest-pocket piece are superbly subtle, and Ben Gazzara comes through with a riveting perf of the revered ballplayer and manager as a wounded, but wise old man who can teach us all a thing or two about making peace with our enemies and getting on with the game of life.
It’s a shock when Gazzara (who won a 2003 Emmy Award for his role in the HBO film “Hysterical Blindness”) brushes off a pack of pesky reporters and makes his hesitant entrance into the manager’s office of the New York Yankees clubhouse. In Tony Walton’s spare, but haunting set, the place is a holy sanctuary, dominated by Casey Stengel’s desk and the spirits of all the dearly and not-so-dearly departed managers who ever parked their keisters on his leather chair.
His face a roadmap of mixed feelings, Yogi takes it all in — Thurman Munson’s empty locker, the echo of Mickey Mantle’s spikes, the green facade of the old Yankee Stadium looming over his head — and shrinks into his crisply tailored suit. This isn’t the brash warhorse we knew and loved. This is an old man and he’s scared to death. But if anyone can get him through the emotional ordeal of coming home, it’s Ben Gazzara.
It was smart, and also sensitive of director Paul Linke to go with the poignancy of the moment. Yogi can reach for comfort in the line that Casey delivered whenever a run came in — “There ain’t no place like home!” But it’s a harrowing homecoming for this oldtimer, who turned his back on all that when he was famously fired by George Steinbrenner in 1985, refusing to return until Steinbrenner ankled or was struck by lightning for his sins. The show is a great trip down memory lane, but there’s no getting away from the pain underpinning the journey.
Lysaght goes over the particulars of the breakup, which had a lot to do with Steinbrenner’s stance on Yogi’s ballplayer son Dale, in enough detail to satisfy the fans. He also resurrects enough of those classic Yogi lines — “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental,” “You can observe a lot by watching,” “If you come to a fork in the road, take it” — to keep the house shaking with laughter. “You know me and words,” Yogi shrugs it off. “They don’t always find the plate.”
But this is no cheap comic entertainment. It’s a mournful, if affectionate study of a principled man who is strong enough to stand up for his values, even when it costs him what he loves best. And that’s the way that Gazzara plays it, in a compassionate, but uncompromising performance that feels as if the actor is living it. In the same way that he refuses to mask Yogi’s age and physical frailty, Gazzara won’t skate on the man’s endearing eccentricities (although a line like “It gets late early” really does take your breath away) and he’s unbending about the interior conflicts that make Yogi a stubborn study in pain and courage.
The old man ain’t Lear, but he’ll do in a pinch.