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Theater Review

The Three Faces of a Baseball Legend

Lee Blessing's introspective drama uses multiple actors to explore Ty Cobb's drive to excel as well as the workings of the athlete's twisted psyche.

September 18, 2002|SEAN MITCHELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What is the final measure of a man who achieves greatness in his chosen profession but sacrifices his humanity to do so? It's an age-old question that playwright Lee Blessing asks anew in "Cobb," a dramatic perusal of the legendary baseball player Ty Cobb, at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

Essentially a one-man show performed by four actors, "Cobb" predates Ron Shelton's 1994 movie of the same title that starred Tommy Lee Jones, and has been staged around the country for more than a decade. This Los Angeles premiere, backed by Kevin Spacey, played off-Broadway two years ago. It's stuffed with baseball lore and Blessing's unmistakable intelligence, but might be hard to recommend to anyone who doesn't care to learn why Cobb used his unorthodox batting grip or why he hated Babe Ruth (whose crowd-pleasing home runs changed forever the scrappy baserunning game at which Cobb excelled.)

"Cobb" aims higher than that, attempting to map the twisted psyche of a man who at age 18 saw his mother shoot his father to death. Except for recalling that famous detail, Blessing does not set out to redeem Cobb or alter the dominant view of him as a mean-spirited bully and dreaded competitor. But he is also interested in how Cobb must have viewed himself, and this is the news that "Cobb" has to offer, even if it must remain largely speculation.

Beginning with a glimpse of Cobb as an addled cancer patient near the end of the war that was his life (he died at age 75 in 1961), "Cobb" works backward through the great ballplayer's own combative introspection to reconstruct his spectacular career while vividly illustrating his psychotic personality. It's a little odd watching a man haunted by questions even while he is reminding us that his success on the diamond stemmed from an iron-willed self-confidence and atavistic singleness of purpose.

But that is the blueprint for the play, and Blessing (who wrote another, more ambitious baseball play, "The Oldtimers Game," in the early '80s) is a good enough dramatist to make us suspend logic for the better part of the evening.

Directed by Joe Brancato, the action unfolds rapidly on a simple multi-platform set, with Cobb's varied incarnations separated from one another on different levels, and the occasional visual aid of old baseball photographs illuminated from behind. The actors nimbly toss bats back and forth and reproduce Cobb's menacing left-handed swing with a convincing athleticism--particularly Matthew Mabe portraying the young Cobb.

Mabe, in Detroit Tiger pinstripes, short-billed cap and turn-of-the-century high collar, is too handsome to be Cobb but otherwise does a marvelous job embodying his ferocity, Southern twang (Cobb was from rural Georgia) and, yes, love for the game, which seems to have been the only real love of Cobb's lonely life. At one point he leads the ensemble in a wonderfully staged re-creation of a "trip around the bases," demonstrating Cobb's speed, cunning and intimidation and why he chose to be a singles hitter rather than a home-run slugger like his nemesis Ruth, whom he derides as looking like "an egg on stilts."

Michael Cullen plays Cobb as the unshaven old coot, shuffling around his cancer ward in a robe, his face puckered in bile as he croaks insults to all while awaiting the end. Michael Sabatino, as the middle-aged Ty, a self-made millionaire in a three-piece suit, is the odd man out, altogether too bland and smooth and un-Southern to have us believe he is related to the other two.

Wearing any number of Negro League uniforms, Richard Brooks, the only casting change since New York, portrays the ghost of Oscar Charleston, a fabulous black ballplayer who serves as a reminder that his formidable skills went unacknowledged in pre-Jackie Robinson America except to earn the dubious honor of being called "the black Ty Cobb." It's a nice touch to imagine Cobb, who was a bigot, facing death while hectored by the thought that "the black Cobb" might have been the better player. But it's hard to believe it happened.

As with any psychological profile that seeks to penetrate the mind of a historical figure, "Cobb's" achievements are limited by a writer's fantasy. We know what Cobb did; we can never know what was inside the crawl space of his head. Still, "Cobb" is a worthy effort to find out, and considering the skin-deep idolatry that passes for history in so much written about baseball, it's a play more real and memorable than anything you're likely to see on the ESPN Classic channel.

"Cobb," Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays at 4 p.m. Ends Oct. 6. $25-$37.50. (818) 955-8101. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Michael Cullen...Mr. Cobb

Matthew Mabe...Peach

Michael Sabatino...Ty

Richard Brooks...Oscar Charleston

Written by Lee Blessing, directed by Joe Brancato. Scenic design, Matthew Maraffi. Costume design, Daryl A. Stone. Lighting design, Jeff Nellis.

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