Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cobb by Lee Blessing

L - R Kent Butler, Daniel Sykes, Bert Emmett - Photo Credit Sherry Netherland

By Joe Straw

You know, that first moment when an actor steps on the stage, you know.  You know, when the actor speaks his first line, you know.  You know, when he takes his first step, you just know you can relax and let the actors do their stuff, let it happen, and hope in the end it feels right. Cobb was that kind of play.  

The Group Rep presents Cobb by Lee Blessing and directed by Gregg T. Daniel at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood. This is a delightful play that will cause you think about time, space, and baseball.  And although there are only two characters in this play, there are several names mentioned to read up on, Ty Cobb, Oscar Charleston, Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, and Jack Chesbro (the only pitcher to win 41 games in a MLB season) to name a few. 

The Lonny Chapman Theatre is an appealing theatre and the parking is free if you get there early.  Everyone is affable and considerate. I had the pleasure of speaking with 87-years-young Elliot Goldwag, an actor, and Larry Eisenberg, the co-artistic director.  Long story short, The Lonny Chapman Theatre is a beautiful space with comfortable seats and a wonderful venue for this type of production.  

One interesting thing about going to theatre is that no two people will ever agree on the meaning of the play. It’s all this self-interpretation that keeps the mind working to its effective peak. One may agree or disagree with the actors’ and directors’ choices and get into a lively discussion later.  I know I do.  In the end, it’s all about getting a handle on the craft.

The acting in Cobb is marvelous with only minor notes about accents and a few other things—but more on this later. This play is something that is not completely baseball but rather deals with the depth of human emotions, with baseball as its smothering atmosphere. 

There is a deeper meaning to Cobb because of one little note in the program,  “Time 1886 – 1961 and later”.  Later? Cobb died in 1961.  Oh? So we’ve got that kind of play, a Rod Serling, Field of Dreams type of play. Something to take the mind to another dimension of sight and sound, “Whose boundaries are that of imagination.”

Nevertheless, Lee Blessing's Cobb is a thought-provoking play that can be taken literally or seen through the eyes of a character’s afterlife, or through someone whose mind is slightly off kilter. One believes that Gregg T. Daniel, the director, took this show a little more literally. More on this later.

But one prefers the afterlife scenario. A walk down the historical perspective past life seems the logical choice when interacting with other Cobb personifications on stage.  

That aside, and while all of this is going on, we are being treated to the play about the life of the iniquitous Ty Cobb and his life in and out of baseball and good old-fashioned baseball stuff.

When the play starts, and from the vomitory, the older Cobb, Mr. Cobb (Kent Butler) marches down the stadium steps and gives us a little history of his life and of his game. Cobb still has the bitter edge that made him one the meanest players in the game but wants his past recriminations forgotten because his objective is to build a bridge for a grand legacy for himself.   His mind not as sharp as his younger days and he has a different view of the past whether it is a forgotten past or self-inflicted forgetfulness remains to be seen. 

The younger Cobb, The Peach (Daniel Sykes) is an angry young man.  He is angry that his father told him not to come back a failure.  And he is angry that his mother took both barrels of the shotgun to kill the man he called, Dad.   Cobb was 18 when this happened and, while his mother was fighting the charge of murder, he took a no-look-back approach to his life and the game of baseball.  

There is also another side to this Georgia Peach, he is a racist and will not play with men of color, meaning “Negros”.   

So what have we got here, rounding the bases, is another element thrown in to round out the nasty going-ons of Cobbs' life, Oscar Charleston (Jason Delane).  Charleston is a mysterious player who keeps appearing throughout the play taking a mental bat and hammering all three Cobbs about their unwillingness to play with black people.  In Charleston’s mind, Cobb cannot have that legacy until he recognizes Charleston’s name and accomplishments. Still the ghost of Charleston is just one more nasty overachieving athlete who wants recognition.  There is a reason he was called the black Cobb because he was, one, as mean as Cobb and, two, his lifetime batting average was similar to Cobb’s.  

Cobb’s life was a “Goddamn Greek Tragedy”.  Well, maybe so, and maybe not.

But the middle aged Cobb, Ty (Bert Emmett), is a man who enjoys the fruits of his labor and his wise investments.  He takes the approach of not apologizing for doing what he needed to do to get ahead for himself and his kids. His investment in Coca Cola and GM proved to be a bountiful harvest.  He is not quite sure that he needs a legacy at the moment but in the back of his mind, maybe he does.  

None of the Cobbs have lost their sense of grand designment and their historical importance to the game of baseball.  Still in this play, they all want something they feel they don’t have.  And that is a legacy.

There were three actors playing Cobb at various stages in his life.  The three were on stage together, mentally battling it out, and at one point threatening to shoot each other.   

Kent Butler as Mr. Cobb was more moderate in the later stage of life, willing to forgive and forget and sees life the way he thought it was supposed to be, baseball and all. The player is still in him, the awards, and the glory.  But he wants a legacy.  He wants to be remembered.  What stands in his way are the players from the Negro leagues who he would not play against.  Butler is marvelous as he opens the show, stepping down the tiered aisle as though it were a stadium and telling us about his glorified life.  This is a wonderful performance by a splendid actor.

Daniel Sykes as the Peach is the young upstart from Georgia.  He enters the big leagues tarnished by the baggage his parents gave him.  Involuntary manslaughter. It is a cross he carries throughout his career and he can never be famous with this dark cloud hovering overhead.  So to make up for it, he plays to please his murdered father. Sykes has a very good look and plays the character with a purpose, being the best he can be.  Still, he needs to find the edge, the character trait that will put him over the top.  I expect he will get better with each performance providing he stays healthy from all of his physical activity on stage.

Bert Emmett plays Ty, a spry middle-aged man in his post baseball career.  He is a man whose head is held high after an extremely successful baseball career.  He is still fighting for his legacy and through the pain of having one parent killing another. But he has his eyes wide open, always looking for the next opening in his life, shooting the gap, and sliding home, sharpened cleats in all.

L - R Kent Butler, Jason Delane, Photo:  Sherry Netherland

Jason Delane played Oscar Charleston, The Black Cobb, an infamous player from the Negro Leagues.  As the character Charleston, he wants more than anything to be known.  He is a dream in the unnatural world of death, a reminder to Cobb that he is not the only one left with a legacy. He wants justice and recognition from the one man who can give him legitimacy and he’s not going away until he gets it. This was a marvelous performance by an actor with a clear and strong voice.

Gregg T. Daniel’s direction was marvelous in many ways.  Certainly his focus is strong and he guides the actors in marvelous detail. There are strong elements to Cobb being a racist and those moments are solid and hit home.  Daniel doesn’t let us forget that there were two Americas back then, one for whites and one for coloreds. It is a point that needs to be made and he does so extremely well.  

But I think this play needs one more level and that is the supernatural level. It can be a small and effective change should the director choose to include it.  Also, I’m not sure the gun scene worked effectively to a truth that propels the story.   

At the talk back after the show, it was suggested the Georgian accents were different for various reasons.   I have many relatives in Georgia and I get a kick out of listening to them speak. My question is:  Why would one want to remove a marvelous character trait like dialect and make it less?  But these are only small quibbles.  This is a marvelous show and if you love baseball, you should go.

Chris Winfield was wonderful as Set Designer and the Lighting Design was done by Sabrina Beattie. Liz Nankin did a wonderful job as the Costume Designer.  Sound Design was by Steve Shaw.  Fight Choreographer was by Edgar Landa although I don’t remember too much fighting going on. The Baseball Coach was Greg Johnson.  The Assistant Director was Colette Rosario and the Public Relations job was by Nora Feldman. 

Richard Alan Woody is the Producer for the Group Rep, Donna Michel was the Stage Manager.  Christian Ackerman did a very fine job as the Cobb Videographer.  Sherry Netherland provided the actors stills.  

In fact, run!

This show runs in repertory with If We Are Women by Joanna McClelland Glass through April 21st 2012.

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