Organic Theater

Once upon a time in a Chicago far, far away, a small, poor theater group with a penchant for creating shows based on improvisation and ensemble work put together a play about a group of Cubs fans, dubbed the “bleacher bums” by the press, whose outrageousness and fierce loyalty to the team Steve Goodman once called the “doormat of the National League” gained them national media attention.

The play they created, Bleacher Bums, written and performed by a cast of talented unknown actors who were paid virtually nothing for their work, became one of those hits every small theater dreams of. After a two-month run at the Organic, the show played nine weeks in New York, was successfully revived a year later, and was broadcast on WTTW (even though it hadn’t been produced by the BBC).

Now, 12 years after its initial run, Bleacher Bums has returned to the Organic, bigger and slicker than ever, fat with grants from major corporate sponsors, and directed by former cast member Joe Mantegna (who is credited with the original concept). The good news is that the play–updated to reflect the new lineup and the introduction of lights–has held up remarkably well; after all these years it is still charming, funny, and entertaining.

The bad news is that the years have not made this play any wiser. It remains a committee-written show put together in eight weeks. For all their research at Wrigley Field, observing the bleacher bums in their native habitat, the show’s actors-writers had only enough time to concoct an entertaining tossed salad of theatrical ideas and social stereotypes. Luckily, Mantegna et al had the taste and talent to make Bleacher Bums tighter and better paced and structured than most shows created in ensemble workshops.

Most of the show’s characters could just as easily have been pinched from any old Second City skit. Certainly, Zig, the bellowing cigar-chomping Chicago male, and Rose, his mousy, nagging wife (who secretly knows more about sports than Zig), are stock Second City characters. Even the show’s premise sounds like an improvisation exercise–half a dozen characters watch a game (that the audience can’t see) and talk.

Of course, Second City has had such a profound influence, both locally and nationally, that you find Second City characters everywhere–on TV commercials, in movies, and, of course, in every improv bar show. But Bleacher Bums also has characters who bear a striking resemblance to those in the plays of Joe Mantegna’s poker buddy David Mamet. For example, Richie, the kinda dumb, misfit kid, and his sky-talking mentor/substitute dad, Decker, could be cousins to Donny and Bob in Mamet’s American Buffalo.

But the play’s nearly plotless, slice-of-life narrative would never be confused with a Mamet story. For nine innings the eight or so characters talk, bicker, place bets, crack jokes, place bets, bicker about their bets, and so on. No one changes very much during the course of the show, nor do we discover something new about any of the characters. We know from the beginning that Decker will lose money because he always bets on the Cubs. Just as we know that Marvin will win by betting on the Cards but will also lose his soul. The major revelation of the story is Zig’s discovery that Rose is as big a fan of the Cubs as he is, and even that is hardly a new twist.

In 1978 Walter Kerr of the New York Times dubbed this a play much improved by its cast. Certainly, this is still true today. Ron Dean, in his hideous green Hawaiian shirt and Bermudas, cuts quite a figure as the eternal ugly Chicagoan Zig. Deanna Dunagan brings so much sympathy and understanding to Rose that she adds another dimension to an otherwise flat character. On the other hand, Joan Schwenk has her hands full just trying to keep Melody King from being just one more insultingly stupid blond bimbo. Happily, she succeeds–most of the time.

Dennis Farina and J.J. Johnston play off each other well as Decker and Marvin, the show’s pair of professional (i.e., compulsive) gamblers. And Joel Murray gets some of the biggest laughs in the show as Richie, the spazzed-out kid who can’t help but wear what he eats. But for my money, the two stars of the show are Lou Milione and Zaid Farid. Lou Milione is simply amazing in the difficult role of Greg, the wisecracking blind guy; he manages to do more with a raise of an eyebrow than most actors can with their whole bodies. Zaid Farid, on the other hand, as the athletic, energetic, but crazed cheerleader, can do more with his body than most actors can even dream of.

Despite this sterling cast, I can’t help but think something’s missing. I don’t know why, but an hour after taking it in, I was hungry again. But after all, as I heard someone explaining in the lobby after the show, “This is theater for people who don’t go to theater very often and baseball for people who don’t go to games very often.” Beneath it all Bleacher Bums is what it has always been–a simple comedy, not very deep, but nonetheless interesting and fun.