Because the houselights do not dim at New York's American Place Theater as the Organic Theater Company's Bleacher Bums begins, the audience is caught off guard by a wiry, middle-aged woman in a blue hairnet who appears in its midst and hollers, "Herb! Herb Zigkowski!" in the flattest Midwestern accent ever heard east of Lake Michigan.
While the theatergoers are trying to decide whether the woman is a member of the cast or some nut who wandered in off Sixth Avenue, their attention is abruptly drawn to the stage, where, suddenly, a buxom blonde in cutoffs and little else is settling down in what is supposed to be the rightfield bleachers at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, pennantless for 31—going on 32—years.
The blonde is Melody King (played by Roberta Custer), a hostess in a restaurant called Jonathan Livingston Seafood, and she has come to Wrigley Field to sunbathe. As she spreads her towel and slathers herself with orange-colored axle grease, the regulars begin to arrive: Greg, (Michael Saad) a good-natured blind man with a transistor radio to his ear; Zig (Dennis Franz), a 30-year veteran of the Wrigley bleachers shown above with his long-suffering wife Rose (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon); Richie (Ian Williams), a harmless halfwit; Decker (Jack Wallace), a gambler whose heart is where his brain should be; Marvin (Richard Fire), a gambler who has no heart at all; and a hyperactive adolescent (Keith Szarabajka), called only "that kid," whose talents for outfielder-baiting are nonpareil. "We'll make him climb the vines," he boasts as he prepares to unload on the opposition's rightfielder, Mike Anderson.
The time is midsummer 1977, and the unseen game is against the St. Louis Cardinals. "We tried to create a prototypical Cubs game, the most frustrating game we could dream up," says Stuart Gordon, the play's director and founder of the 9-year-old Chicago-based Organic Theater Company. Lest Bleacher Bums be robbed of its drama, the outcome of that game will not be disclosed here, but anyone who has been even a casual Cubs fan has a pretty good idea of how it winds up.
The play was a hit in Chicago last year, a hit in what is known in New York as Off-Off-Broadway this spring, and has now moved uptown to the American Place, the big time of experimental theater. The Bleacher Bums script was derived from a combination of eavesdropping and improvisation. At the suggestion of Joe Mantegna, a company member who is a Wrigley Field regular, the actors spent last summer in the bleachers observing the natives and, in the manner of anthropologists, tape-recording their chatter. Then, inning by inning, they improvised the show, saving what worked, discarding what didn't. Some of the characters are composites, some are based on real fans, but all—except Marvin—are lovable lunatics who live on hope and bet on anything that moves.
Zig roars and bets, Richie drools and bets, Decker sweats and bets, Marvin wheedles and needles and bets. Greg provides the play-byplay via his transistor radio, with the blonde as his color person, "that kid" shrieks insanely, and Rose—the one in the blue hairnet who has come to the park to save Zig from himself—reveals herself as an apt pupil of Jack Brickhouse, the Cubs' TV announcer. "Actually, Herb, it was a split-finger fastball," she says smugly, squashing her A's to perfection.
Bleacher Bums has no plot to speak of; the game provides as much structure and forward movement as is necessary. Laughter is the object, and the laughs the play provokes are of the best kind. They rise, seemingly effortlessly, out of deft characterization and logical—well, almost logical—situations.
Marvin, of course, winds up with all the money, but by and large the nice guys win in the end. Zig and Rose even arrive at an understanding. "This little lady I wun't trade for nuttin'," he says. "I wun't trade her for De-Jesus down there." Finally, Greg, the blind man, delivers himself of a triumphant fantasy in which the Cubs win the World Series in the 23rd inning of the seventh game against the White Sox. Ernie Banks, who has been brought out of retirement, knocks in the clincher with a homer into Greg's lap.
"And now," he says, standing and snapping his white cane into position, "I am going to walk Miss King to the El."