The Yankees are larger than life -- and that's made clear even before Peter Scolari steps onstage in the new play "Bronx Bombers," which opens Thursday at Circle in the Square.
The theater lobby bears massive photos of Yankees legends Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and more. Theatergoers sip Bronx Bomber cocktails, peruse signed baseballs, athlete trivia -- even a love letter from Yogi Berra, the beloved Yankee catcher and manager, to Carmen, his future wife.
"Bombers," by Eric Simonson -- who's brought football ("Lombardi") and basketball ("Magic / Bird") to Broadway -- explores the egos and elegance of baseball, and the epic allure of the Yankees. The play opens in 1977, the day after the infamous near-brawl between Reggie Jackson and then-manager Billy Martin. Berra (Scolari) tries to mend the rift, assisted by other players and Carmen (played by Scolari's real-life wife, actress Tracy Shayne).
Scolari, 58, a Westchester native and three-time Emmy nominee, is best known for roles on TV's "Bosom Buddies" (with newcomer Tom Hanks) and "Newhart." He recently chatted with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio before a rehearsal.
So how big a baseball fan are you, for real?
At the time this play takes place, I was a religious Yankee fan. In '79, when Thurman passed, I was so devastated I don't think I watched another Yankee game for more than 10 years. And now, lo and behold, here I am in Act 1, Scene 1, playing Yogi in a scene with Thurman. I realized I was sort of . . . connecting in a . . . in a cosmic way.
You played baseball, didn't you?
I made the varsity team as a freshman at 15. Then, I tore a tendon and never fully recovered. I was a shortstop, then third baseman, then second baseman.
Was meeting the real Yogi Berra helpful?
I think so, Joe. I met him at the Yogi Berra Museum at Montclair State University. Yogi is, to be sure, a man of few words. A sportscaster referred to him as someone without guile -- what you see is what you get. And I got a lot out of meeting him. He's as genuine and decent a human being as you'd ever hope to meet. He has an unending smile. And loves life. He's a powerful example for me.
Why are the Yankees so special?
Well, the blunt answer is not satisfying -- they've won 27 world championships, more than twice that of any other team in professional baseball. Perhaps the more interesting answer concerns the character of the men who played on the team.
No one was classier than Lou Gehrig. And John Wernke, playing Gehrig, has an almost heavenly glow onstage.
Wernke, you say, the big tall goon walkin' past me right now? Yeah, he's incredible. My daughter, who's 12, came with her friend, and she loved the show but all she could talk about was John. When they met him, she and her friend Violet got down on their knees and started bowing. I kid you not. They were very moved. I'm not talking about a little schoolgirl crush -- although my wife thinks there's something of that. But my daughter is at the Professional Performing Arts School, so she was reacting as a budding professional actor.
Are there unexpected challenges playing husband and wife with your actual wife?
You can't just rely on the intimacy and ease you have as a couple to get the work done. My wife is a fantastic actress, but we haven't really worked together. We're both really tenacious and have stringent expectations, you might say.
You were terrific in Nora Ephron's "Lucky Guy" last year with Tom Hanks. Granted, you played newspapermen, so maybe I'm partial. Was your old buddy Hanks nervous making his Broadway debut?
The first day of rehearsal, he was so prepared. It was clear he was sending a message saying . . . look . . . I'm gonna come out swinging. There's no reason for a two-time Oscar winner to prove anything. But he was . . . inspired by the work, and maybe at some level he did feel he had something to prove. First week of rehearsals, we residents of the theater community said, "We got your back here, pal. And you're gonna knock it out of the park." And you saw the show -- you know he did.
Given the ephemeral nature of show business -- castmates are like family, but then you go your separate ways once the show closes or the series ends -- it must be nice to have a connection and history with someone like Hanks. Since "Bosom Buddies," you've done two films and that play together. Your career paths keep reconnecting.
It's wonderful. And we'll meet again, Tom Hanks and I, to continue the saga. I'm sure of it.