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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Two For Two:
Rounding Third Comes "Home"
Durang Tries Laughing Wild

Rounding Third
Jefferson Arca and Osborn Focht
Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown is an ideal venue for Rounding Third, the pleasant little comedy-drama which enjoyed an Off-Broadway run last fall. Families in the exurban (bordering on rural) northwest of New Jersey are more likely to recognize the situation depicted in this suburban Little League themed play than jaded urban playgoers.

The two character play begins with the meeting of veteran Little League coach Don (Osborn Focht) with his newly assigned assistant coach Michael (Jefferson Arca) prior to the start of the season. Don, who is a house painter, places great emphasis on winning. Michael, a business executive, believes that a happy experience for the children is most important.

Michael (who appears to be a stand-in for author Richard Dresser) comes to appreciate Don's dedication, coaching skills and concern for the youngsters on his team. He even comes to understand the importance of playing to win. Don remains decidedly unappreciative of Michael despite Michael's efforts to provide him with help during the dissolution of Don's marriage.

Many of the scenes occur at the Little League field, andArca and Focht often speak directly across the footlights to the space which the audience shares with unseen Little Leaguers.

Rounding Third plays as a well educated guy's tribute to an off-putting, unappreciated, but decent and valuable working stiff whom he has come to appreciate. While there is a degree of condescension inherent in such an undertaking, Dresser holds it to a minimum.

I wish Dresser had addressed two unforgivably destructive behaviors of Don. Don uses his son Jimmy (the team's star pitcher) to scout out his fellow school kids so that he may select the best players for his team and blackball those who are poor athletes. The negative implications of the unequal competition that he is attempting to achieve are self evident. At least as bad is his response to Jimmy's desire to perform in a school production of Brigadoon.

Jefferson Arca is perfectly cast as Michael. Initially, Arca captures the wise-ass humor and casual amiability of a self-satisfied guy totally clueless as to his own shortcomings. As Michael gets caught up in his coaching duties and develops an appreciation for Don, Arca smoothly and believability conveys both Michael's growth and his insecurities.

Osborn Focht is solid as Don. Although there is a major upheaval in his life, Don remains fixed in his attitudes and incapable of growth or change.

Carl Wallnau has directed an appropriately crisp and unfussy production. Gordan Daniele's fine set resembles that employed Off-Broadway.

While there is nothing new or innovative here, and the evolution of Don and Michael's relationship is in many respects predictable, there is a pleasing, not so nice and neat, conclusion which I found unexpected and believable.

Rounding Third is a modest, well constructed play dealing with real issues and believable characters. It is intelligent, moderately funny and ultimately moving. Most notably, it always engages our interest.

Rounding Third continues performances through November 21, 2004 at the Centenary Stage Company on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box office:908-979-0900; online: www.centenarystageco.org.

Rounding Third by Richard Dresser, directed by Carl Wallnau.
Cast:
Don .......... OSBORN FOCHT
Michael .......... JEFFERSON ARCA


Photo: Carl Wallnau


Laughing WildChristopher Durang's 1987 Laughing Wild is a clever little exercise for two actors identified only as woman (Harriett Trangucci) and man (Clark Carmichael). It is a very angry farcical comedy so rooted in the past that it feels dated today.

The first act consists of two consecutive monologues. The first, by the woman, concerns her inability to cope with her urban environment. She tells us at length about an incident in a supermarket. She is blocked from reaching a can of tuna fish by a man slowly examining a label. Becoming increasingly angry because he doesn't sense her waiting presence and step aside, she punches him on the back of his head, knocking him to the ground. She then tells us at length about a series of irrational irritations. She dementedly informs us of her ability to produce a loud, convincing laugh at will, and repeatedly demonstrates this skill. The upshot is that she is suicidal, has been in mental hospitals, and clearly cannot cope.

Actually, the woman is "laughing wild." As she informs us in a specific quote from Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, she is "laughing wild amid severest woe." Although laughter is an antidote to despair, she does not have the strength to sustain it ("Cry and you cry alone. Laugh and you cry alone later").

Exit Woman. Enter Man. He is trying to maintain a pleasant equilibrium, but it is most difficult for him. He has almost made the transition from considering himself bi-sexual to accepting his homosexuality. He is most enraged at the intolerance of the Catholic Church and conservative fundamentalist types who proclaim that AIDS is divined by the Almighty as punishment for immoralists (specifically, homosexuals and drug addicts). Oh, in a "by the way" fashion, he informs us that he is the hapless shopper who was bashed in the head while perusing a tuna fish can label.

Rejecting religion, he is attracted to a new age "harmonic convergence" philosophy. However, he still cannot help being judgmental and hopes to attain a spirit of goodwill through Shirley MacLaine in order to be at one with the universe. I'm glad I got that Shirley MacLaine line in because there certainly is much humor here which I am unable to convey. However, for me, this whole scenario is sadly dated and only intermittently mildly amusing.

The second act brings us to intertwined monologues by the woman and man. They do not actually meet, but they are in each others dreams. Ultimately, the woman shares the man's dream revolving around a Central Park "harmonic convergence" gathering although she has no independent knowledge of the movement. At the top of the act, they reenact several dreams that are variants of the tuna fish can incident, all with unhappy results.

The most extended and memorable sequence (when it began, it made me recall for the first time that I had previously seen this play) is a shared dream of the woman replacing Sally Jessy Raphael on her television interview show wherein she interviews a flesh and blood version of the Infant of Prague (enacted by the man). The latter is an elegantly dressed, pampered-looking statue representing the Christ child. The woman becomes outraged at the strict, sometimes outmoded ideas blithely expressed by the Infant. Specifically, the woman accuses the Church of preferring to allow children to die rather than permitting them to be taught about contraception. The woman tries to kill the Infant only to discover that you cannot kill a religious icon.

While Durang clearly supports this view, the woman also expresses what seems to be irrational hostility to Mother Theresa and "Dr. Ruth" Westheimer. If I recall correctly, the woman desires to be Edie Sedgwick (the tragically mentally ill and drug addicted Sedgwick had her fifteen minutes of fame as one of Andy Warhol's "superstars").

A not very "harmonic convergence" dream concludes the evening. I will not spoil the conclusion for those adventurous theatergoers who are intrigued and may wish to attend.

Harriett Trangucci delivers a whirlwind of a performance. She brings out all of the humor and desperation of the woman with great clarity as an unstoppable torrent of words pour forth from her. When she is too tired to laugh anymore at the end of her first act monologue, we feel the desperation which has so depleted her.

Clark Carmichael covers his seething rage with a bright, bemused exterior. The stated contrast between how he is trying to relate to the world around him and his true feelings is made manifest in his performance. Carmichael smartly carries over a similar contrast between the words and the demeanor of the Infant of Prague.

Laura Ekstrand keeps the evening moving at a fast clip. Ekstrand's direction is completely in tune with Durang's antic, in my eyes, desperate humor. Jessica Parks has designed an interesting set which jumbles together several New York locales, in and around supermarket shelves.

For me, it is not the references to specific events and culture figures which date this play. In fact, it is often exciting to learn about the fashion and celebrities of other eras. The best plays illuminate through the ages. However, viewing Laughing Wild today, it appears that when Durang dragged the earlier Age of Aquarius and alienation into the age of AIDS ignorance and fear, he created a pastiche with a limited shelf life. In any event, it does not resonate in today's culture in which robust competitiveness is the predominant trait among young adults.

Laughing Wild continues performances through November 21, 2004 at the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre at the Baird Center, 5 Mead Street, South Orange, NJ 07079; Box Office: 973-378-7754; online: www.DreamcatcherRep.org

Laughing Wild by Christopher Durang; directed by Laura Ekstrand
Cast:
Woman .......... HARRIETT TRANGUCCI
Man .......... CLARK CARMICHAEL


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- Bob Rendell



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