Bart & Fay

Walnut Street Theatre Studio 3, closed Apr. 7.

Sportswriter Michael Bamberger has an interesting story to tell in his simple and gentle play Bart & Fay: the partnership of Commissioner of Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti and his deputy and successor Fay Vincent. Or rather, the play is about the friendship between A. Bartlett Giamatti, the president of Yale, and Fay Vincent, the president of Columbia Pictures, and their shared love of baseball, a love that takes them from being mere fans of the game to being its custodians.

Giamatti and Vincent first meet, the play tells us, in a skybox at a ballgame. And when they're not in boardrooms, corporate jets, restaurants or in one or the other's office, we see them in their favorite place: the ballpark. Sometimes they talk about baseball; on rare occasions they talk about their private lives and, even less frequently, about their respective spouses. But mostly, they talk about their jobs.

Vincent kvetches about producers and agents and movie stars; Giamatti kvetches about faculty members and alumni and support- staff unions; and they both kvetch about budgets. Mostly, though, Giamatti kvetches about getting out of Yale and finding a job that could excite him as much as teaching once did or, failing that, one that could pay his mortgage. Giamatti fishes for contacts in the corporate world; Vincent fantasizes instead about their opening up a bookshop --"Bart & Fay's" -- in New Haven. Giamatti is offered the presidency of the National League (though the American League would have suited him more as a Red Sox fan), and then the commissioner's chair. Vincent negotiates Giamatti's contract; Giamatti negotiates Vincent's for the new deputy position.

It takes the entire first act to get that far. And it's all about as interesting as reading a resume.

Act One ends with Giamatti, triumphant about a job that pays him over half a million a year to watch baseball games, crowing "This is bliss!" Act Two begins with Giamatti watching Pete Rose on a screen. Rose, whose gambling became the subject of Giamatti's official investigation and threatened sanction, is the serpent in the Edenic greenworld to which Giamatti (a Renaissance Poetry scholar) likened baseball. Rose also gives the play a needed transfusion of conflict, a crisis that tests both Giamatti and Vincent's skills and their friendship. When the investigation and negotiations are over, so is Giamatti's life, and so (almost) is the play.

If Bamberger were a more experienced playwright, he might not have relied so heavily on Vincent's narration (the product, no doubt, of a series of interviews with Vincent in the years since Giamatti's death), which often tells us things that we can figure out for ourselves. He might have known how to end the play. He might have had the courage to put aside some of the matters of public record -- speeches, letters to the editor and the like -- that he found in his research (though some of the best writing for the eloquent and charismatic Giamatti are Giamatti's own words).

And he might have had the courage to let the drama emerge through the dramatic activity that Bart and Fay do best: watching baseball. Here, discussions about Valenzuela's fans, Strawberry's drug habit, Darling's chances in the majors and Rose's working-class hustle are merely markers of the passing era. But such talk could be the primary, perhaps the exclusive, way that we learn about Giamatti's father, about Vincent's aborted athletic career, about Giamatti's degenerative muscle disease, about Vincent's self-image as a cultural dilettante, etc. Having his two characters do nothing more than sit, eat nachos and talk about whether or not the pitcher will throw a curve because he thinks the batter expects heat might be a better way for the playwright to tell us all the narrative events of the play. And it might be the best way for him to stage, for the actors to play, and for the audience to see, what the play is really about: friendship.

In the production of Bart & Fay which closed last week at the Walnut, Tom McCarthy, as Vincent, was gentle and winning, completely convincing as a wealthy lawyer and corporate executive. And Tom Teti captured the familiar characteristics of the very-public Giamatti persona (arms folded over his belly, the distinctive walk), looked the part (graying goatee, the dangling cigarette), and conveyed Giamatti's eloquence, insightfulness, tweedy suavity and hair-trigger temper to perfection. William Roudebush directed.

-- --Cary M. Mazer