Review | Steinbrenner! by Ira Berkow and Bill Madden | Starring Richard Kind | Guild Hall, Southampt
This was a tremendously enjoyable evening: with his vitality, charisma, and theatrical intelligence, along with his comic timing, acting depth, and all-round performer’s talent, Richard Kind, supported by a fine cast, took us in hand through Berkow and Madden’s take on how George Steinbrenner owned and ran the NY Yankees.
By the end of this staged reading, a work in progress based on Bill Madden’s best-selling book, I wasn’t sure we got to know the real Steinbrenner, but we saw once again that that Richard Kind is one of the funniest men alive.
The play has a biographical arc, from Steinbrenner’s childhood through to old age as his son (Bradford Cover) takes over the Yankees, closing the circle. The focus, though, is all on Steinbrenner’s years of owning – and micromanaging — the team, and restoring it to its earlier, temporarily diminished, hard-to-beat the Yankees glory. In the main, he comes across as brash, unsentimental, and tough on everyone around him: lose a game, get fired. He hires Billy Martin (Danny Fischer) as Manager, fires him, re-hires him, fires him, re-hires. Complacency, Steinbrenner says, doesn’t win games.
In his winning-is-all dominance of subordinates, Steinbrenner brings to mind Donald Trump “You’re fired”. Berkow and Madden, while making much of the swagger, go beyond it to show us a more complex and kinder side to the man. We learn early about Steinbrenner’s generous and not overly publicized philanthropies. He shows a tender if equivocal loyalty for a favored few: he had a special place in his heart for the great Yankee catcher Thurman Munson (played by R. J. Gruber), and when Munson dies in a crash of his (Munson’s) private plane, the winner-takes-all Steinbrenner, moved by grief and respect, is willing to forfeit games to honor him.
And it’s worth noting that while many players and staff came and went revolving door style, his right hand man, Gabe Paul (Zach Grenier), never quit and Stick (Danny Fischer again), a top talent coach and sometime General Manager stayed by him – though to hang in there, and collect their big salaries, they, like everyone in the Yankee organization, it seems, had to take a lot of flack.
Steinbrenner’s combination of confidence and unease is traced to his demanding, perfectionist father whom he never could fully please. His relationship with his wife is referred to lightly, but enough to let us know that he was an ardent and determined suitor – just like when he was courting a star baseball player like Reggie Jackson (Duane McGlaughlin). His relationship with his long-time pal, Elaine Kaufman (Judy Kaye) of Elaine’s, Manhattan famously “in” restaurant, provides a female note. Judy Kaye as Elaine, along with Zach Grenier as Gabe Paul, are cool, smart foils for the rambunctious humor that emanates from Steinbrenner’s single-minded determination, and literal takes on whatever comes along.
Although the play was read by fourteen actors playing even more parts, Richard Kind as Steinbrenner is dominant. You never lose sight of him – nor do you want to! It’s hard to separate how funny and touching he is as an actor from the play’s essential qualities. The story’s told with insight but the we learn too much of what happens by being told. Since Steinbrenner is presented as a work in progress, the authors may move it more from spoken narrative to dramatization.
And about that big question: how did Steinbrenner’s Yankees become so great? The big bucks are mentioned but the focus leaves you thinking their success spun out of his outsize personality. Wasn’t it his outsize pocketbook, and his willingness to spend huge amounts of money?
Steinbrenner was a delightful evening of theater. I look forward to see more of it.
Steinbrenner, directed by Randal Myler, played at Guild Hall in Southampton, Long Island, NY August 2, 2015.