Candlelight’s Forum Theatre
Confession #1: I was brought up a White Sox fan, trained from a very early age to despise the Cubs.
Confession #2: After old Comiskey Park was demolished and replaced by One Magnificent Mall, I became infatuated with Wrigley Field, and my animosity for the Cubs turned to grudging acceptance.
Confession #3: I still think Bleacher Bums is a dreadful show.
According to Forum Theatre’s press materials, this play–conceived by Joe Mantegna and developed by the Organic Theater Company in 1977–is second in popularity only to the works of Neil Simon. Which, if true, says a hell of a lot more about the dire state of commercial theater in America than it does about the play. This trite expansion of what might have been a decent five-minute Second City sketch is one of the dullest, flattest comedies I’ve seen in a long, long time.
An improbable group of fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers spend nine innings of a game against the Cardinals cheering their heroes, heckling their foes, bickering and gambling, and naively hoping that this will be the year their faith in the Cubs will be rewarded. The fans are a cheerfully grousing old couple, a blind Pollyanna (perhaps a metaphor for all Cubs fans), a slick hoodlum, an indefatigable lunatic cheerleader, a mature businessman and his geeky lackey, and a sweet sunbather with a thing for Ryne Sandberg.
It would be inaccurate to say that nothing happens in this play. Bets are won and lost; couples argue and reconcile; someone catches a home run ball. But it is accurate to say that nothing interesting happens. The sanitized characters are reminiscent of the folks one sees in the bleachers, but their exchanges are way too cute to be believed. There’s no hard edge to any character; most everyone’s a cuddly, lovable loser without depth.
Wit might have saved them but is sorely lacking. We get a couple of tepid blind jokes, some very outdated sexual humor, and some improbable slapstick in which the nerdy Richie splatters himself with a Frosty Malt (last time I checked, they weren’t made of thin liquid). The heckling is far less amusing than what the real-life bleacher wags usually come up with. A sequence in which the blind character insults the Cardinals (To Todd Ziele: “Get Real, Ziele!” and to Tom Pagnozzi: “Tom Pag-nauseating!”) is downright embarrassing.
Forum Theatre’s revival of this play has been updated to reflect the current Cubs and Cardinals rosters but lacks the attention to detail that would make these references seem authentic. For folks who supposedly attend every home game, they sure don’t seem to know much about baseball. They get the name of the Cards’ star pitcher right but seem ignorant of the fact he used to play with the Cubs.
Still, the acting in Forum’s production is decent. Vince Viverito, Chicago’s answer to Robert Duvall, plays the businessman Decker–who continues to bet on the Cubs against his better judgment–with a depth and intelligence the role doesn’t really deserve. Lori Hammel as the sun-worshiping Sandberg fan manages to wring some humor from her shallowly written bimbo role. The rest perform with a professional, highly polished dinner-theater sort of enthusiasm, dutifully selling their show but barely ever making it believable. It’s like watching a processed, pasteurized, Disneyland version of reality.
Last time I was at Wrigley, security booted out two thugs who had snuck into their seats. A guy named Harrington wearing a “Saluki Pride” T-shirt was getting into a fight with his neighbor over the racist remarks he’d made. Some woman in a bikini whipped a beer in the face of the jackass who’d been staring at her chest. A young tough was bragging that he’d seen someone pull a knife in the men’s room.
Now that might be a play.