Some playwrights are actors’ playwrights, creating juicy roles for lusty thespians to devour. Others are directors’ playwrights who load their plays up with wonderful opportunities for imaginative staging and interpretation. Lee Blessing, in his plays A Walk in the Woods, Eleemosynary, and Cobb, reveals himself to be a low-budget-producer’s playwright, crafting small, simple plays tailor-made for theater companies that don’t want to blow wads of cash on sets or large acting ensembles.
There’s rarely any action in these plays. Just conversation, reminiscing, and the occasional argument. Blessing uses this stripped-down, bare-bones approach to cut to the core of some weighty issues. The genial discussions between American and Soviet arms negotiators in A Walk in the Woods provide rare insight into the psychological underpinnings of the cold war. The monologues and conversations of three generations of superachieving women in Eleemosynary effectively illuminate the struggles children face in trying to meet the lofty expectations of their parents. But in Cobb, now in its Chicago premiere at the Raven Theatre, the technique that has served Blessing so well falls flat. His attempt to use the story of baseball great Ty Cobb to examine the dangers of fame, the ravages of time, and the dark side of the American dream feels labored, ultimately collapsing under the weight of its pompous ideas.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was certainly a fascinating figure in the annals of baseball history. He was perhaps the best ever to play the game, but he was also a mean-spirited, ultracompetitive SOB who boasted of spiking catchers as he slid into home. He beat the crap out of fellow players, a hotel chambermaid, an equipment manager, and even a crippled fan who called him a “half nigger.” Baseball scholars attribute Cobb’s ferocious, take-no-prisoners play to his demanding father, who told Cobb before he embarked on his baseball career, “Don’t come home a failure,” and was eventually shot to death by Cobb’s mother.
If any historical figure is especially ill-suited to Blessing’s conversational, contemplative style, it’s Cobb. There was probably more intensity and excitement in a single Cobb at-bat than there is in Blessing’s entire play. Cobb takes place in a purgatory where three versions of the legendary athlete interact–a brash, angry young man, a fierce, tightly wound businessman retired from baseball, and an elderly man trying to forget the errors of his youth and preserve his image as an American hero. In this purgatory, the three Cobbs are haunted by Oscar Charleston, the legendary Negro Leagues star who was known as the “Black Cobb” and who matched Cobb in talent as well as demeanor.
Cobb’s story is told in monologues by and arguments between the three versions of him, who give blow-by-blow accounts of their battles on and off the field, while Charleston pops in from time to time to defame Cobb’s image. Charleston’s failure to receive the notoriety of Cobb serves as a reminder that in the earlier 20th century in order to capture the American dream you had to be white. You sharpened your spikes, beat up blacks, and alienated your teammates and with a little bit of luck you wound up a millionaire. Charleston might have been every bit as gifted an athlete, but Cobb would never have drunk from the same water fountain; and that, Blessing seems to be arguing, is why Cobb had a lifetime batting average of .367. At the end of his life, a calmer, conciliatory Cobb struggles to rewrite his past and remember himself as a charming baseball star like Ruth or Gehrig, but he cannot escape what he was–and Charleston is there to remind him. This Cobb is a prisoner of the personality that made him a success. He may have been a star, but his wife left him, his son wouldn’t speak to him for 15 years, and he ended up sad and lonely. “Great lives suffer great tragedies,” the elder Cobb observes ruefully.
The observations may be intriguing, but they’re awfully heavy-handed. Blessing makes the nifty biographical details sound as if they were lifted from a sixth-grader’s oral report (“I was the first player to swing three bats in the on-deck circle”). Having three Cobbs on stage at once might have seemed like a clever idea, but it feels phony; after a while we feel like we’re watching John Adams and Thomas Jefferson debating in Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. In a sequence where the three Cobbs point guns at each other, there’s no dramatic tension–he’s already dead.
Blessing appears to have done his homework on Cobb, but he’s less successful when it comes to the character of Oscar Charleston. Despite Blessing’s contention that Charleston matched Cobb in temperament, he’s reduced to striking dignified poses and delivering trite lines like “You don’t know what anger is” and “You’re no different–you’re the same as me.”
So it’s a credit to the highly talented Charles Glenn that he comes off better than any of the other actors in the sketchily written role of Charleston. The others–Davidson Cole, Bill McGough, and Chuck Spencer as the young, middle-aged, and elderly Cobbs respectively–acquit themselves well but cannot rise above the preachy script. Martha Lukens has reproduced Cobb’s and Charleston’s uniforms with painstaking accuracy, and Michael Menendian’s direction is clean and professional, but there is little that can be done to salvage this dull 80-minute play.