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Cub Hubbub

Hands together, sports fans, and belt it loud and proud: “Yo mama’s got the (clap! clap!).”

Yes, it’s remarkably crude, genealogically rude and one of the more tantalizing taunts hurled by the cheap-seat chanters and ranters of “Bleacher Bums,” a blustery comedy that’s literally a shout-out to the heartbreaking-est team in baseball, Chi-Town’s hometown Cubbies.

That pearl of familial flattery is aimed at those visiting vipers at Wrigley Field, the St. Louis Cardinals. The host club is showered with: “The mighty Cubs! Mightier than the mountains! Mightier than the Himalayas! Mightier than Mount Vesuvias! Mightier than Mount Olympus!” (Not mighty enough to clinch a pennant for 63 years, but that’s a bar fight for another time.)

The lovable louts turn Las Vegas Little Theatre into one of the notable peanut galleries in sports history beginning this weekend. If its February scheduling isn’t exactly baseball-minded, think of it as a pre-spring training warm-up.

“Gee, it’s too bad we can’t sell beer before the show,” muses director Paul Thornton, though the notion of being beaned in the schnoz by a bag of nuts (or a box of Crackerjacks?) isn’t unthinkable. “The show is written without an intermission, but we’ll have a seventh-inning stretch, and the ushers will go through the theater selling stuff. Unfortunately, we don’t have a liquor license!”

“Bleacher Bums,” written in 1977 and updated in 1998 (hence the pre-steroids- suspicion Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa references), was conceived by actor Joe Mantegna and fleshed out by members of the Organic Theatre in an apparent improv session gone gonzo. Mantegna and Dennis Franz headlined the original production, in which a simple setup — a Cubs-Cards game as seen by the betting, bickering and bullying die-hards in the right-field rafters — opens up an examination of friendship, loyalty and the longing to belong over nine nutty innings. These ribald rooters are devoted, if not delicate:

“They’re killing our rallies,” says one character after a double play empties the bases. “That was the worst bunt I’ve ever seen. Any pitcher that can’t lay down a sacrifice should be shot, and fined.”

What looked like a fastball they could muscle out of the park turned into more of a devilish curveball for the director and his cast.

“It’s a tough script to direct,” Thornton says. “Lines are very similar to each other, and repetitive, with characters making all these bets back and forth. It’s real easy for the actors to get lost.” The performers must also precisely coordinate their reactions to the imagined action on the field.

“Oh my God, I’ve done about 25 shows and this has to be the hardest to memorize — not only is it repetitive, but you might have a line involved in a conversation happening elsewhere, but still talking about the game,” says Will Klundt, who plays Marv, the de facto villain who bets on the Cards, or any team he believes will cause the Cubbies to collapse and bring him a financial windfall. “I’m like the guy at the wedding where everybody says, ‘Get him out of here!’ “

For Jim Williams, who plays Zig, the gambling husband fending off his wife’s nagging, it’s a matter of containing his roving stare.

“You’re looking at the audience, but you’re not, because that’s where they’re playing,” he says. “You’re not breaking the fourth wall, but you’re supposed to be looking at the ballplayers, so I don’t want to catch anyone’s eye out there. That would be deadly.”

As a nearly possessed, Cub-crazed loon, wearing “Cub Power” socks while almost literally bouncing off the bleacher walls (and leading the “clap-clap” cheer-jeer), Kyle Jones is getting one wicked workout.

“I have lost a lot of weight,” Jones says. “I’m jumping down stairs, I scraped my knee crawling around. But it’s so much fun. I just hope I don’t lose my voice.”

Funwise, this play is a hanging curveball looking to get spanked into the upper deck. That’s because everything — history, philosophy, Kirk Douglas movies — is fodder for the fractious fanatics of “Bleacher Bums.”

“I’m Spartacus!” screams one fan.

“Who’s Spartacus?” asks another.

“He plays for the Gladiators.”

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0256.

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