God, I hated Little League.
Hated it as a child and hated it as a parent. My one and only memory of playing on a Little League team doesn't involve playing at all--it involves sitting on a bench weeping miserably but as secretly as possible while waiting for the Godot of a single lousy goddamn never-to-arrive chance to play.
That bit of boyhood suffering doesn't compare, though, with what I went through later, when my eldest son joined a team and together we experienced the petty mendacity of a certain kind of baseball parent. These were the fathers who saw their boys as a second chance at greatness or a means to revenge or a conduit for any number of pathetic fantasies: the cadre of damaged souls who alternately browbeat their own kids and beat back the kids of others who might threaten their place in the lineup. By means of networking and various forms of bribery, these guys organized themselves into a daddy mafia that served admirably to ruin everything for everybody. There's a great vicious play to be written about Little League.
But Richard Dresser's Rounding Third isn't it. Though it hints at some of the excesses and affronts of organized baseball for kids, this highly schematic new play doesn't care to expose any underbellies. In fact it could serve as a comic, slightly funky advertisement for Little League, simulating the basic premise as my son and I experienced it: Rounding Third isn't about kids or baseball but about middle-aged men fighting and bonding. It's a buddy play.
The middle-aged men in question are Don and Michael, a coach and assistant coach so frankly like Neil Simon's odd couple that the preshow music includes the Odd Couple theme as performed on stadium organ. Don, the veteran coach, is a blowsy prole who hates being called Donald. Old-style coaching philosophy? "One word--win." Rookie Michael, on the other hand, is a corporate middle manager hardwired to his cell phone and unable to abide being called Mike. Boomer feel-good quote: "The fun is in the playing." Their whole interaction is about reconciling their respective sets of cliches, a process that culminates with Michael finally breaking down and allowing Don to call him Mike. All the rest--including the team's season--is details.
Dresser reaches "Mike" by setting up a series of straw men. Michael's cell phone is fetishized to such a point that it's a foregone conclusion something terrible--and yet, I don't know, liberating--will happen to it. Likewise Don's fabled former assistant coach, Tony Barone, is not all he appears. The fact that Don's kid is the best player on the team; the fact that Michael's is the bespectacled, nerdy worst; loosening up in the macarena, of all things--each is asserted so that it can be reversed or recast in some mildly surprising/satisfying way and thus provide a landmark on the road to "Mike."
But if Rounding Third is highly calculated, derivative, and superficial, it's also playful in an airy, self-confident way that tends to excuse the calculation, derivation, and at least some of the superficiality. As the preshow musical allusion to The Odd Couple indicates, nobody is out to convince us that what we're seeing is anything more than what it is. There's no attempt to patronize, to disguise the conceit or overstate the lesson. And no attempt to supply an undue gravity, even in the moments here and there when the calculation has to do with making us cry. Under B.J. Jones's smart direction, the show doesn't try to sell us anything it wouldn't buy.
Which is not to say it's a goof. George Wendt might easily have gotten away with turning Don into a near cousin of his Saturday Night Live Bears fan. Might have been congratulated for it, in fact. Instead he builds Don into a vivid soul--alternately self-aware and blind, hidebound and open, generous and slightly savage. Matthew Arkin's Michael is less distinct, perhaps in part because more of the weight of Dresser's calculations falls on him. But he never succumbs to the yuppie stereotype signaled by his tan khakis. Unexpectedly, perhaps, this show respects itself and comes off well as a result. I just wish to hell it had blown the lid off Little League.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephanie Patterson.