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Back Back Back

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

James Martinez, Michael Mosley, and Jeremy Davidson.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Changing the names to protect the innocent only works when someone, somewhere, doesn't know who's guilty. Itamar Moses's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Back Back Back, is a thoughtful and accomplished dissection of the drive to achieve as viewed through the lens of Major League Baseball's ongoing steroid scandal, though it's sometimes hard to hear to because of all the eggshells it walks on.

It's likely for legal reasons that the California team that produced three sequential Rookies of the Year in the mid-1980s is never named; that the winners - one Latino and two whites - are given names that suggest the originals, but are just different enough; and that a disclaimer appears in the Playbill stating "This baseball drama is fictional and does not depict any actual person, incident or event." But by the time Raul publishes a book accusing half of baseball of using steroids to reenergize the game following the ill-received 1994 strike, even casual fans won't be fooled.

One actual name you hear? Barry, as in Bonds - of course. Some punches this play doesn't pull - though it might lose more of its mild manners, and gain a dramatic grand slam or two, if it did.

This reluctance to take the fight right to the first-base line might rate more than a cluck or two if the play didn't stand on its own, but luckily it does. Moses's best-yet work in New York, Back Back Back sheds the gimmicky artifice of the playwright's 2005 Bach at Leipzig and last season's The Four of Us in favor of a reality-based rumination on the prices we pay for taking the easy way out - and the prices we pay for not. Directed by Daniel Aukin as a taut and trembling but unbiased bio, it even manages to make this well-worn subject relevant again.

Raul (James Martinez) is the first of the Rookies, and has a tempestuous career that finds him passing through many different teams (and wives) before returning to his first to oversee the steroid use he initiated - and eventually write a scathing tell-all about the League's dependence on performance enhancers. Kent (Jeremy Davidson) followed Raul, both as Rookie of the Year and as a user, but finds more lasting success until Raul identifies him in print and sends him careening. Adam (Michael Mosley), the third and most nervous of the Rookies, forgoes steroids altogether, and drifts ever more into obscurity as the sport changes around him.

Yet Moses doesn't let either judgment or luck, whether good or bad, drive his story. Back Back Back works because it examines each player's pain and loss from every angle: Adam endures its side-effects first hand; Raul shrugs it - and everything else - off as a problem to be solved later; and Kent tries to bury every problem within waves of carefully unchosen words. The distinctions are often subtle, but grow over the play's 95-minute running time into a finely textured atmosphere in which the betrayed and the betrayers are not always who you think they are.

Even near the beginning, Kent is afflicted with a tragic melancholy that hints at his knowledge that he's tackling something far bigger than himself; Raul deals with difficult issues with indifference and Adam with a willful unawareness. These varying approaches contribute to the play's underhanded destructiveness, rippling forth from the men's earliest, vaguest choices through their lives in ways both expected and surprising. The first scene, for example, promises a fractured buddy-themed morality play, but builds the foundation needed for the men to later take an active hand in destroying themselves; later, one's clumsy attempt to make amends alters the course of a friendship - and his life.

The actors don't help much early on. None is convincing, or even visibly comfortable, as the charged young players of the first scene, who've made it and now want to Make It Big. Martinez, especially, unnaturally stupid rather than impenetrably self-concerned, a condition from which he takes too many scenes to recover. But all three actors ease into their characters as the timeline progresses from 1988 to 2005, and by the final scene - set simultaneously in a government building in Washington, D.C., and on a Colorado practice field - they've all found the blend of intelligence and woundedness necessary to richly define these men as victims of their own creation.

That adds an additional sad layer of reality to this "fictional" history: These three, who start as teammates then diverge and eventually dissolve, mirror baseball's own turbulent fortunes over the last 20 years. Because of restrictions of his format - and the potential litigiousness of so many involved - Moses has not written the definitive dramatic treatise on the era. But he's gone a long way toward explaining and analyzing the public and private scrapes and stumbles from which the National Pastime has not yet fully recovered.

Back Back Back
Through January 4
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage 2, 131 West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Manhattan Theatre Club

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