Existentialism and Senescence in YCDS’ ‘Oldtimers Game’
Peanuts. Cracker Jack. Home runs. Glory. And bad backs. And bad knees. Looking back on life and not liking what you see. The existence of a baseball player, warns playwright Lee Blessing in his 1982 play “Oldtimers Game,” is full of torment and contradiction.
Directed by Prof. Reuven Russell and performed by Yeshiva College Dramatics Society (YCDS), their first production in three years, the show tells the story of the Northshore Otters, a Minnesota minor league baseball team and the annual oldtimers game they’re scheduled to play against a ragtag bunch of Otter alumni. Normally a sleeper of a matchup, this year’s game turns explosive thanks to sparring personalities and worldviews, an unconventional new owner and a terribly timed thunderstorm.
We meet the current Otters in their locker room, populated by props master Moshe Hecht and backed by Russell’s own set design. Battered wood and metal lockers on the back wall frame a door to the manager’s office; light coming through its frosted glass greets us even before the stage is illuminated. A slow fade up reveals out-of-touch manager Cal Timmer (SJ Tannenbaum) giving hitting tips to Sut Davis (Zev Granik), a supremely talented batter who’s itching to make it to the majors. Sut’s frustration pretty quickly devolves into existentialist questions about the purpose and identity of a minor league baseball player, foreshadowing issues the play will address over the course of its feature-length runtime. Jesus Luna (Rami Levin), himself a career minor-leaguer who’s accepted he’ll never make it out of Triple-A, and Harly Nix (Josh Segal), a qualified player whose pregame beers and practical jokes have gotten in the way of his ambitions, sit on locker room benches and trade jabs to the side.
They’re soon joined by Oldtimers “Lucky” Jim Nealy (Aharon Nissel), a promising player-turned-broadcaster whose heyday was cut short by an untimely injury, Crab Detlefsen (Isaac Nahmias), whose amiability and sincerity can’t quite make up for his forgettable career, Dave Pearl (Eli Sandhaus), a current star player in the majors, and Old John Law (Yitzy Warren), jeremiad-spouting Hall of Famer who has quite a lot to say about the sorry state of the modern game of baseball. Hanging over the match is the recent purchase of the Otters by ruthless advertising executive Mr. Thompson (Daniel Melool) who promises to radically reshape the team in the name of grander wins and increased profits. Apparently, some literal storm clouds hover nearby too.
As Crab lauds Old John’s storied throwing arm, much to young Sut’s chagrin –– “I know [he was] good, but I like playing the game, not hearing about it” –– Mr. Thompson rattles off the changes he plans to make to the team. Aside from yes man Timmer, most shake their heads at his bizarre promise that “everyone on my team will work like a dog even though he’s paid like a king,” willing to sacrifice everything for newsreel-worthy replays. Old John in particular warns against selling body and soul to owners and managers, literally “running into the fence” to catch a few fly balls, but the young players don’t seem to internalize his message. As the game approaches, we learn that Old John would rather sit it out –– he’s sick of performing, doesn’t want to exacerbate his dormant injuries and is afraid of making a fool of himself in front of the “kids.” Crab eventually convinces him to join; the former’s fears are validated when he hurts his back in the first inning.
Unfortunately for everyone else, the looming storm clouds choose that moment to crack open (paired with deep thunderclaps from sound designer Zakkai Notkin). Diamond flooded, the game is cut short and peers and rivals all gather together in the locker room to ride out their rotten luck. There, Mr. Thompson announces big changes to the roster, surprising and angering most Otters. In a searing, intricately choreographed fight scene (courtesy of fight director Joe DiNozzi), they lash out at each other and turn to blows, wreaking further havoc on the fragmented locker room and already fragile web of interpersonal relationships.
“Oldtimers Game” tries its hand at life’s most pressing questions, explored through its snazzily-dressed cast of ball players-turned-philosophers. Among former Otters, Yitzy Warren’s Old John Law serves as the play’s moral conscience in his warnings against myopic decision-making and gambling away of prospects, with a multidimensionality that delicately skirts the fourth wall and makes audiences wonder whether he’s talking straight to them. Eli Sandhaus’s Dave Pearl cogently and heartily juggles the energy of success with the weight of expectations, while Isaac Nahmias’s warmth as Crab Detlefsen redeems the other players despite their best intentions, and Aharon Nissel’s Jim Nealy charts a professional path forward for those facing radical shifts in circumstance due to injury. (His particular path involves a hilarious mess of tape recordings and off-the-record quotes).
But while the oldtimers philosophize, the young ‘uns grapple, sometimes literally. Save for Rami Levin’s ferociously cool Jesus Luna, they trip over themselves and claw at each other for that coveted boost to the major leagues. SJ Tannenbaum’s chameleon manager Cal Timmer realizes his way in is yelling at players and groveling before Mr. Thompson, himself fully assimilated by powerhouse Daniel Melool. Sut Davis and Harly Nix think their tickets are their batting average and peerless “attitude,” respectively, but both are ultimately proven wrong. Their processes of discovery are masterful; entranced, we follow Zev Granik’s Sut from cocky one-track overachiever to clear-eyed player and person. And Josh Segal delivers a sweeping, full-scale performance as Harly, jumping the character across the emotional map, dispatching double entendres and dazes both with grit, fervor and investment.
It’s notable, though, where the players’ invectives are directed. Sut and Harly have issues with Mr. Thompson and the broader baseball establishment, so they throw punches at … each other? From the audience, it’s sickening to watch the Otters act so paranoid that they’re unable to quarrel with the man and system which are causing all their trouble in the first place. And such troubles! By the end of the play, injuries have wiped out half the players and peer over the shoulders of all the others. Old and young, all they know of baseball are those bad backs and bad knees. 65-year-old John and 20-year-old Sut are resigned to the same rehab facilities and hospital beds. Get well cards if they’re lucky, if they have anyone who would care to write.
Blessing’s play reminded me of “Twelve Angry Men,” another character-driven clash of (male) personality that unravels and coalesces over two hours in a single room. Both stories are rescued from potential ivory towers of moralization by dexterously fashioned dramatis personae, a foundation of “real” people working out real issues beneath their enigmatic vaultings. Built on such solid bedrock, “Oldtimers Game” shines as an exploration of the fragility of the body and the transience of youth, the value of perspective and how it always comes just a little too late. It scrutinizes the thrall of free-market power dynamics and the hidden price of playing one more game. It questions the meaning of change. And, over a few beers laced with irony and imagination, it ponders our deliciously haphazard place among the stars.
“Oldtimers Game” is playing at the Schottenstein Theater from April 4 through April 10. Tickets can be purchased here.
Photo Caption: The cast of “Oldtimers Game” at the curtain call
Photo Credit: The Commentator