Beginning its ninth season, the Open Door Repertory Company offers a delightful rendition of the Chicago classic by Joe Mantegna, “Bleacher Bums.” This particular production presents the late ’70s script’s most recent updating, subtitled “Cross Town Classic.” It’s a charming baseball yarn without a single baseball player in the cast. This new version is now set during the annual afternoon baseball game pitching the Chicago Cubs against the Chicago White Sox.
The nine-inning comedy is for and about die-hard Cubs fans. We witness the characters’ reactions to the game, to each other, and to themselves. Many of these people have been gathering here for some time so they know each other well. Some, however, do not necessarily like or even tolerate each other.
The Cubs may be perennial losers but these hardcore fans never lose faith. They also run the gamut from conniving to kooky. During the course of the show, beer flows, hot dogs disappear, friendly wagers take on increasing importance. They reveal their true colors between balls and strikes.
When I was a kid in the ’50s these ivy-covered cheap seats in the slightly disreputable nosebleed section of Wrigley Field was where my mom and dad always chose to plant all of us on our periodic “family day at the ballpark.” As soon as we’d climb to our seats this pair of normally mild-mannered, straight-laced Lutherans would quickly, astonishingly peel off most of their clothing. Mind you, we’d seldom seen our father with his shirt off, let alone our mother in a halter top. They were not only diehard Cubs fans but also fanatical sun-worshippers who’d begin slathering one other with Coppertone as soon as their butts hit the bleachers. We kids, of course, were mortified, so as soon as we’d manage to scrounge our dollar-for-the-day from Dad’s wallet, we’d immediately begin our nomadic afternoon, gobbling hotdogs and Frosties while watching as much of the game as possible from anywhere in the ballpark but seldom from the seats our parents purchased on either side of them.
Yet somehow during these childhood Cubs outings we managed to get to know many of the quirky characters my folks so enjoyed in their beloved cheap-seat section. There was a little man name Norbert who admitted having “a plate” in his head, worked at the Baby Ruth plant, and routinely brought us paper sacks full of “mistakes”- misshapen, rather scary-looking hunks of chocolate drippings. They were unsightly yet we gobbled them all afternoon. Another favorite denizen of the upper bleachers was a loud-talking little Jewish lady named Stella Bobbins who came with her neighbor, a Miss Zott, who claimed to have once been a Chez Paree dancer who always did a shuffle-ball step during “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” This pair of old queens brought icy jars of home-made briny pickles and handed them out during the game to folks they liked, each pickle nicely rapped in a half sheet of the Sun-Times. Between the non-stop rotation of free pickles and the molten nuggets of Baby Ruths, it’s a wonder we didn’t have to be rushed to Children’s Memorial during the seventh-inning stretch. But I digress. I’d simply wanted to establish my childhood membership as a die-hard Cubs bleacher bum.
This long-running play was conceived by local upward bound ’70s hotshots Joe Mantegna (Cicero) and Dennis Franz (Maywood) at Chicago’s Organic Theater company. It’s gone through a variety of versions. This particular mounting of “Bleacher Bums” is a comedic character study with a great Open Door ensemble cast. The Cubs, as you know, get no respect. They do, nevertheless, get fanatical fans. The entire cast, in fact, considers the Cubs a religion.
It’s a pretty motley crew:
Jake Kaufman is a wisecracking blind man with an encyclopedic memory for Cubs trivia. Joseph Gandurski is a hen-pecked husband, a good-natured gambler. Diane Pingle is his wife Rose, who apparently always nags him about the money he loses. This time she surprises him by showing up with a sack of egg salad sandwiches to see just what the attraction is.
Douglas Werder is a wild jumping bean cheerleader with Cubs insignias painted on his bare chest. He often steals the show with his booming, gyrating, wacky energy.
Nicole McKeel is s good-looking sun-worshipper who likes to show off her figure at the game while catching some rays. If memory serves, this role is often cast as a stereotypic blonde bimbo type. By having an African-American actress portray this wannabe model there’s new angles to the role.
Garen Hudson is a grade school kid who’s only briefly in the beginning. You keep expecting him to be in some big pay-off scene.
Trey Edge plays a somewhat slow but sweet scorekeeper who’s often used as a go-for by his peers.
Wes Boyer is the booming announcer as well as a security officer in the stands.
Marvin, a nasty gambler who bets against the Cubs, is Dale Hawes. He’s a jerk.
Suave, likeable Decker, a well-heeled businessman, is Noah Sullivan. He’s a compassionate gambler.
This show is an enjoyable enough production but the play is not without its shortcomings. The fault mostly lies in the writing. The performers work hard to flesh their roles out. But the script is essentially a series of thin character sketches rather than a tight dramatic situation.
Director Patrick Stinson seems to have a strong sense of comic pacing, yet there were a few plodding points in the opening night performance where the energy flagged. The spark was clearly missing in a few spots. Certainly these dull stretches will tighten up as the production continues to run its course.
Anna Morrell is the stage manager.
This play may be one long inside joke-a classic piece of Chicagoana-that may not be particularly funny outside our own region. But an awful lot of people sure seemed to enjoy it on opening night. The themes of hope and desperation, no doubt, will continue to be true for Cub fans for quite some time to come. The Cubs’ lack of baseball success (their last World Series win was in 1908-nearly a century ago) is matched only by the rabid adoration of their fans. But I’m certain “Bleacher Bums” will enjoy a happy run this season.
By the way, there’s an intermission during the “7th inning stretch.”