The night before Bleacher Bums opened, I got an email saying there had been a cast substitution and asking if I could come a different night to allow for some adjustment. I wish I’d been able to, but Thursday’s soft-open was my only free night that week, so I promised I would keep it in mind. And I have to say, as I watched the opening night’s performance, I was entirely stymied by which of the actors was the new addition.
Looking around the SoDo Theatre for the first time, it seemed like the company had gone to lengths to bring the audience along to the ballpark: the concessions sold
keg beer soda, hotdogs and popcorn; the “Cardinal Fans only” seating was laughably inadequate and far-flung; there were Bud standees for decoration (and for raffle). Producer Michael Galloway was proud to point out that the flats were painted with “official Wrigley green”, and that Budweiser was a corporate sponsor. Looking over the rest of the setting – some crumply blue for the sky, a fake-ivy covered fake-brick wall, and benches barely covered with green plastic – I wondered why that detail was worth going the extra mile for, but others (like the visible masking tape and outrageously fake money) were not.
The predominantly-male cast arrived sporadically, greeting each other and leering lecherously at the only young woman, placing initial bets, helping out the blind guy, and humoring the youngest man.
The character of Richie, as played by teenaged Evan Galloway, may have been written as a little “dim” but casting a teen in this role ended up confusing the issue: is he just naïve, or does he actually need help? The age discrepancy between him and the much older men became distracting; at times, they spoke very maturely about him with blue humor, but other times they condescended to him as though he couldn’t possibly know the ways of the world and grownups. I still don’t know what Richie’s deal is, except the script dictates he can’t physically feed himself like a human, and Evan perhaps embraced that a little too fully.
This one-note play is mostly about how awful it is to be a Cubs fan, and how you have to make side-bets because betting against the Cubs is not allowed even though that is a bet you will always lose. Like the team always loses. However, this monotone is interrupted periodically by “funny” misogyny: look at the hooters on that bikini-babe, and oh no my wife is coming to ruin my fun. Of course, there’s an upswing – the wife manages to earn the respect of the man she married by proving she knows baseball, and the babe shuts down all the creepers by going home with the blind guy, who treats her like a person. Womankind is saved.
It’s probable that I’m biased, but I thought the women in this show were by far the superior performers. Emma Lacefield as Melody (aka the bikini babe) ended up being the actor who subbed in late, but I never guessed it. A dear friend was cast in a walk-on role as the Security Guard; I’m inclined to say she was also pretty great. And Diane Pritchard as Rose (aka Mrs. Zig) improved the show, not just thematically, 100% when she joined the Bums. Ms. Pritchard knew her lines, delivered them clearly and with natural feeling, and managed to double the number of people who could keep the rest of the cast on track.
During the first half of the show, that role belonged solely to Decker, as played by David Heckman – an actor I have seen do very well with very mediocre material. I could see him believing his character’s reality, his delivery felt real, and he knew his stuff. When the Bums ended up repeating circular dialogue, Heckman steered them out of the cloverleaf; when everyone talked at once and no one heard a cue, Heckman fed it back.
To be sure, Bums is a complicated script with some high demands of its cast, and I saw it on an opening night when they had never performed it in front of an audience before. But the examples of lack of volume, dialogue confusion, poor timing, and emotionless delivery were far too numerous to chalk up to opening night.
The one person who could not be said to ever suffer from any of those deficiencies was “The Cheerleader” (aka our illustrious ex-mayor, Don Gerard). Even though Gerard also swapped into this role at the last minute, his energy seemed boundless, even when pretending (?) to be out of breath. His charmingly perturbing methods of getting the Bums to cheer, convoluted heckling, and prop-based humor injected this show with just enough actual fun to make me not want to leave.
Unfortunately, these brief moments of fun and one-third of the cast being good were not enough to make me enjoy the play on the whole. My partner, who comes to a lot of shows with me, was frustrated because it appeared to him as if some of the leads were cribbing from their scorecard clipboards and still fumbling a bit. It occurred to me also, but having stat-keeping friends, I know it does realistically require a person to look at their scorecard quite often, and I will think the best of the actors.
Bleacher Bums is a dated piece of baseball nostalgia, but if you remember the bad-old-days and feel like realigning your emotions to that mindset, head to the SoDo Theatre this Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. or Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15, with a discount for seniors or students, and are available online or by calling 1-866-967-8167.
[An earlier edition of this publication erroneously reported that the venue was selling beer. This was a misinterpretation from a conversation about Budweiser’s sponsorship and not based directly on observation. My deep apologies for the error]