Ever since Field of Dreams, baseball has held a special place in popular culture. A baseball story can reach themes of male bonding in a way that are otherwise reserved for "chick flicks." Baseball has carved out an exception to the otherwise unspoken rule that sports and soul-baring don't mix. Rounding Third, Richard Dresser's comedy having its West Coast premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, takes advantage of this "baseball exception," crafting a story of two men who are polar opposites and must learn to get along as Little League coaches for the same team.
The fictional team is coached by Don (not Donald). Don is a blue collar guy who wears sweats, drinks beer, and drives a van. His son is the team's pitcher. His coaching philosophy is "Winning is fun; losing stinks." Don is brought face to face with his new assistant coach Michael (not Mike). Michael is a white collar executive who wear suits, drinks frou frou coffee, and packs a cellular phone. His son can't hit or field, and is nearly blind without his glasses. Michael's coaching philosophy is "The fun is in the playing, not the winning or the losing." That these two stereotypes will disagree on everything is to be expected.
What makes Don and Michael's journey to mutual understanding worthwhile is a script that's funnier than it really has a right to be. Every time something serious Don or Michael says threatens to take the play into a touching emotional space, it is immediately defused with a brilliantly funny punchline. It isn't unusual for a play to switch from comedy to drama and back again, but Dresser's script is uncommonly good at switching back to comedy so quickly and effectively. It almost reaches the point where you want the script to go someplace depressing, just because you're waiting for the big laugh that comes when Dresser gets out of it.
The bulk of Dresser's zingers are handed to Don, played by Michael Mulheren. Mulheren is completely believable as Don, convincingly portraying Don's gruff exterior and the (mostly hidden) gentle man who really cares about the kids on his team. Don could be a scary character - he frequently flies off the handle at minor things, such as Michael's tardiness - but Mulheren always plays his anger for laughs, and Don's raised-voice tirades are never truly threatening. Kevin Symons gives a less memorable performance as Michael, probably because he has less to worth with. Most of the time, Michael is simply the straight man for Don to play off of. But he comes into his own in the second act, and Symons does a fine job with his character-defining monologue.
Director Andrew Barnicle keeps the action moving apace, although there are a few rough spots in the production which could probably be resolved by different directorial choices. For instance, the script appears to rely on a running joke in which Michael can never fit all of the team's equipment into the gear bag. But in the first act, Don gives him a quick bit of advice on how to put the first piece of equipment in the bag, which somehow enables Michael to correctly pack the entire bag - leaving his future bag-packing difficulties unexplained. Perhaps if Don demonstrated the bag-packing the first time, Michael's inability to duplicate Don's skillful packing would make more sense. But these are minor problems. When you leave Rounding Third, you don't think about why Michael couldn't pack the equipment bag, you're too busy laughing at some of the great lines you just heard.
Rounding Third runs at the Laguna Playhouse through February 2, 2003. (949) 497-ARTS or www.lagunaplayhouse.com.
Laguna Playhouse, Richard Stein, Executive Director; Andrew Barnicle, Artistic Director; present the West Coast Premiere Production of Rounding Third by Richard Dresser. Scenic and Costume Design by Dwight Richard Odle; Lighting Design by Paulie Jenkins; Sound Design by David Edwards; Production Stage Manager Nancy Staiger; Production Manager Jim Ryan. Directed by Andrew Barnicle.
Photo by Ed Krieger