Stamford Theatre Works, Stamford
It was appropriate, perhaps inevitable, that Steve Karp, founder and producing director of Stamford Theatre Works, should mount “National Pastime” –and at this particular time.
First, it is African American History Month. And, secondly, “National Pastime” is the story of Baseball Hall of Fame’s Jackie Robinson - specifically, how Robinson broke the color bar to become the first black ball player in the major leagues. As a result of Brooklyn Dodgers’ president and general manager Branch Rickey’s courageous move and the equally courageous stand of Robinson, other black players would soon follow throughout major league baseball.
But Karp had other compelling reasons for directing playwright Bryan Harnetiaux’s “National Pastime”—namely, both Robinson’s connection to Stamford and Karp’s own connection to baseball. Robinson was a one-time Stamford resident, a fact of which Stamfordites are justly proud. And Karp himself was a one-time ball player, who turned down offers from the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox to pursue a different direction.
So much for background.
But what of the play itself? Are Karp’s enthusiasms and valid connections enough to turn this into a first-class theatrical experience? Alas, the strength of “National Pastime” lies more in the production—and the ideas—than in the play itself.
First, Karp has corralled a thoroughly professional company for this effort. In the two leads, the very attractive Leopold Lowe (Jackie) and the powerhouse Paul Falzone (Branch Rickey) give good account of themselves. Though both tend to deliver lines unintelligibly (Lowe speaks too quickly and Falzone must juggle lines in a gravelly voice which is further hampered by a cigar), body language more than compensates. Each gives off strong vibes, and the scene they share (in which Rickey makes Robinson the historic offer) scales the heights. (Unfortunately, it takes far too long for the play to reach this exalted level.)
Two other performers which give a gritty realism to the proceedings
Patricia R. Floyd (as Jackie’s mother) and Wiley Moore (as the journalist Wendell Smith), both of whom are completely at home in their roles, which they carry off with a natural ease.
The play itself, alas, tends to be more of a lecture than a drama. More often than not, actors relate what is happening or has happened elsewhere. Furthermore, there is a choppiness to the series of staccato scenes. And the attempt to conduct separate activities of Rickey and Robinson on either side of the stage in counterpoint is a gimmick which merely confuses.
Having made these points, the fact is that the audience (on the night we attended) clearly appreciated the tribute to the great Jackie Robinson. They rose as a body to applaud the play and to hail once more this early significant victory to civil rights.
-- Irene Backalenick
Feb. 2, 2006