Foul Bawl

Bleacher Bums is a baseball comedy which, from its earliest moments, had me root root rooting for the curtain to fall. The kind folks at Ensemble Theater have set up a kiosk in the lobby so that one can, as the song goes, buy you some peanuts and Cracker Jack. Unfortunately, they're not offering aspirin or earplugs, which might help fans of good writing get through this atrocious shriekfest, since there's no intermission during which one can comfortably escape.

Bleacher Bums is one of those "plays" built for people who don't like theater. Its premise takes us out to the ballgame without aid of a story or any messy character development, and unfolds like a never-ending Second City skit that's as long as a double-header.

This comedy about a day in the life of a group of Cubs fans, originally written as a group project by Chicago's Organic Theater, has been around for a couple of decades. The original cast included comic actors Joe Mantegna (who conceived the story) and Dennis Franz, both of whom appeared in a subsequent television version that earned Mantegna an Emmy award.

Set at Wrigley Field at an apocryphal game between the Chicago Cubs and archrivals the St. Louis Cardinals, Bleacher Bums is not a play about a baseball game, but about its fans. They're a gruesome group of grandstanders who'll bet on anything: the game, one of its batters, or whether their nerdy friend can get a hot chick's phone number.

There's a certain pleasant irony in attending a baseball game where we're observing the people in the stands instead of the game. Unfortunately, nothing happens in the stands. Nothing, that is, other than a lot of screaming by a bunch of morons who are so mean and stupid that we never, during the interminable time we spend with them, develop any affection for them.

There's Zig (Kenny Brodie), an obsessive sports fan who bets on every other play in the game and spends the rest of his time hurling insults at his seatmates. His wife, Rose (Sharon Yormick), adds nothing more than another voice to the cacophony when she shows up halfway through the performance. Melody (DeAnna Robbins) has come to the park to sunbathe, while blind Greg (Elias Castillo) is there so that Mantegna can write pre-PC blind-guy jokes. Marvin (Jim Coates) is a sleazeball who bilks loyal Cubs fans out of their cash and self-worth. Richie (Daniel Brodie), the only interesting character, is a dweeb who's kicked around by all the other players.

Instead of a plot, we get a lot of hollering about money and gambling and friendships. The screaming is busted up by annoying routines by a maniacal cheerleader (Steve Galindo), who puts hexes on the Cards and leads the cast in exasperating group chants. Another bit that's meant to be funny concerns Zig's endless repetition of the line "That's my Johnson!" spoken about his favorite player while the actor indicates his crotch. Ha ha.

The script has been updated to include current team players but never an interesting exchange about them. Variations on the show's teeny theme (baseball fans are really loud and obnoxious) are exhausted within minutes, and a ninth-inning shot at seriousness comes out of left field and lands on its face.

Tim Hart's direction provides as much variety as it can, considering his characters are tied to the bleachers and have no meaningful dialogue. His cast does a credible job with a lot of uninspired trash; when they weren't shrieking and jumping up and down, they made me believe they were watching a nine-inning baseball game. But they never convinced me that I should care.