Play: “Branch Rickey”
Group: The Presenters Dolan
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: May 6, 7
Tickets: $20; contact 314-725-4200, ext. 10 or www.LicketyTix.com
Story: Playwright Ralph Kalish’s two-act drama depicts the life of Wesley Branch Rickey, the teetolaling attorney and professional baseball player, manager and executive who revolutionized the national pastime in a career that spanned a wide swath of the 20th century, from his start as a catcher in 1905 until his death in 1965. Rickey introduced such innovations as the batting cage, batting helmet and pitching machines, engineered the first six of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 10 World Series championships, opened the first spring training facility, signed the first Hispanic superstar (Roberto Clemente) and, most significantly, penned the first African-American ballplayer, Jackie Robinson, to a major league contract.
Highlights: Kalish, a prominent attorney in his own right, is a dedicated and unabashed baseball fan and his enthusiasm for the game and his subject matter clearly comes through in his one-man presentation. His script is full of interesting, often fascinating background information about one of Major League Baseball’s most influential innovators, a man who was elected to the Hall of Fame not for his mediocre career as a player (he holds the dubious record as a catcher for most stolen bases, 13, by an opposing team in a game) or a sub-.500 manager but as a brilliant and shrewd executive who knew his proclivity for assessing talent and helped transform both the Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers with his expertise.
Other Info: Kalish does not fare as well as a performer. Director Milt Zoth and the playwright would be better served with a professional actor who could more capably capture nuances of “The Mahatma” that helped make him such a celebrated figure of the game. While Kalish projects an admirable fervor for his part, he too often rushes or stumbles over lines and just as egregiously fails to capitalize on the rich material he gathered in his copious research.
For example, an exchange between Rickey and the deceptively clever “country bumpkin” Dizzy Dean features lines spoken by both in the same staccato delivery of the performer, where a more measured and characterized approach for each would work better and more fully deliver the comedy inherent in the dialogue.
Additionally, there is little in the way of dramatic movement to enhance the rather static presentation. Although there is a desk in the background, it’s never really used, while a podium at stage right becomes the cynosure of two abrupt scene changes that allow Rickey to address audiences, once as a would-be politician, but with little theatrical impact.
While the performance is sub-par, Kalish’s research into his script is solid and could allow for a compelling production if more finely attuned. His devotion to the subject matter certainly is prescient, however, as writer Jimmy Breslin has just published a biography of Rickey and Robert Redford is preparing to portray him in an upcoming film that focuses on Rickey’s signing of Robinson.
Kalish’s script devotes the first act to Rickey’s life and career up to his crowning achievement, the signing of Robinson that integrated baseball on the field. The second act is comprised totally of that singular and courageous act, which Kalish observes (as have others) that Rickey did partly out of idealism and partly out of keen business sense. As he never worked on Sunday to honor a promise made to his mother, so did Rickey remember the humiliation suffered by a black teammate in his college days that he hoped to mollify with Robinson’s signing.
Despite its shortcomings, the production was sold out for three performances last weekend. Producer Jim Dolan, director Zoth and Kalish are bringing it back for two encore presentations May 6 and 7. Get your tickets while they’re hot!
Rating: A 3 on a scale of 1-to-5.