I'm no sports fan, but I am capable of responding to the myth and magic of baseball. A couple of years ago, I was absorbed and delighted by Ken Weitzman's The Catch, which grew out of the Denver Center's New Play Summit to receive a full production. This play presented baseball as both redemption and corruption, a metaphor for America itself. It reached back to the game's racist past and explored its current status, including its significance in immigrant life. But memories of The Catch only highlight the paucity of imagination in the center's current offering, Jackie and Me, Steven Dietz's dramatization of a book by Dan Gutman.
Sure, Jackie and Me is a young-adult book, but it's also a remarkably flat and didactic one, and I'm not entirely sure why Denver's largest and best-funded theater company feels the need to tackle children's theater, given the dearth of serious work around town. Jackie and Me tells the story of a baseball-crazed kid called Joey Stoshak, who, with the help of a magical baseball card, goes back to 1947 and meets his idol, Jackie Robinson, the man who changed the game and, in doing so, racial dynamics in America.
Joey has a problem with his temper, and Robinson shows him how to deal with it by transforming futile rage into skill and determination. His parents are on the verge of separating, and Joey's adventures help bring them back together. Pretty much everyone is a cardboard character. Joey jumps around a lot and has little jokes, but he's still one of those stereotypical cutely tough but vulnerable Brooklyn kids. Mom and Dad are nice, nice, nice: You start longing to witness one serious squabble between them. Then there are baseball players, amateur or professional, supportive or jeering; the tough but decent coach; the nostalgic middle-aged guy who sells baseball cards and his 1940s bubblegum-card-selling counterpart, a spunky and decidedly non-racist Jewish woman — whom I actually found somewhat convincing: In 1947, Jews would have been far more aware than most of the dangers of racism.
Jackie and Me
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 22, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.
As for Robinson himself, he and his wife, Rachel, aren't just nice; they're too noble to be real. Robinson's achievements are legendary and his influence huge, but surely he was also a human being who sometimes faltered. We've seen tributes to a couple of American heroes in Denver theaters lately — RFK and Red-Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins — and our admiration for them was only enhanced by our glimpses into their personal weaknesses. But this Jackie Robinson seems poised to step onto a plinth and instantly transmogrify into marble.
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The entire play is sanctimonious, preachy and sodden with wet-eyed nostalgia. Every significant utterance gets repeated again and again. I lost count of how many times young Joey said Robinson's entry into the majors represented a historical moment. Or the times Robinson admonished Joey to hold his temper. We're supposed to melt at references to Ebbets Field and gaze, as if in church, upon the row of baseball jerseys bearing Robinson's legendary number: 42. But while these symbols might deepen a good script, they can't do all the spade work for this mediocre one.
Even for a kids' story, the plot beggars belief. In most children's literature, the young live in a fantastical world that's closed to their elders, but Joey's parents both know he is able to travel through time, and they actually suggest errands for him to accomplish when he does this. Can you imagine Alice bringing her nurse back a token from Wonderland? And once he's in the 1940s, Joey is transformed in a way that's seriously hard to stomach.
If anything could enliven this piece, it would be the whiz-bang tech, especially Lisa M. Orzolek's wonderful set, with its floor of colorful baseball cards. It's hard to judge acting where the characters are so thinly written, but most of the performances are overly broad — though there are a couple of actors I'd like to see given more to work with: William Oliver Watkins, who brings power and grace to the role of Robinson, and the always interesting Diana Dresser, who's wasted as Joey's mom. As for Joey himself, I'm not sure how much of this to attribute to the words he's given and how much to Aaron M. Davidson's performance, but I found the kid increasingly irritating as the evening wore on. This play is no hit.
Jackie and Me