Sunday, March 06, 2005

Rounding Third (Cleveland Play House)

ROUNDING THIRD’ examines what's important in life through "guyspeak"

What’s the purpose of Little League baseball? Is the goal to win or to teach sportsmanship? Is it a game for the kids who play it or for the egos of the men who coach it? On the surface, these may be conceived as the queries that playwright Richard Dresser had in mind when writing ‘ROUNDING THIRD,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House.

The play premiered in Fall 2002 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL. It then moved off Broadway where it ran for 24 previews and 72 regular performances.

In ‘ROUNDING THIRD’, Michael and Don are two sides of the same Little League coaching coin. They disagree about everything from the rules of the game to the rules of fatherhood to the rules of when to change socks. Don is a beat-‘em-at-all-costs kind of guy who is a veteran of many little league campaigns. Michael is a loner, unschooled in the game of baseball, who has a hidden-agenda behind why he volunteers to coach. Don's son, the star pitcher, is his perceived future, while Michael's son is someone with whom he wants to bond. The two men square off in a battle of differing philosophies, and the team is the inadvertent beneficiary of their confrontations.

The play was supposedly inspired when the author’s son Sam came home from Little League practice and announced that his coaches had provided the team with a new strategy for the upcoming play-offs. When one of the slower kids on the team got on base, he’d receive a signal which meant that upon reaching the next base, he should slide and pretend to be injured. That way, the coaches could take him out of the game and replace him with a faster runner. When Sam said, “Coach, isn’t that cheating?” the coach replied, “No, Sam, that’s called strategy.” This started Dresser down a path that first favored the thinking of Michael and later to embrace that of Don, and finally to a compromise. It’s the compromise with which the play concludes.

Besides the literal view, the play can be looked at at a different level. To do that you have to understand “guyspeak.” As linguists have ascertained, guys don't often talk about their feelings, at least not directly. They come at things sideways, with lots of euphemisms. So, if you listen between the lines of ‘ROUNDING THIRD’ you’ll hear what the characters are really saying to each other. They are talking about loyalty, meaning, and even love. These are repeated themes of ‘ROUNDING THIRD,’ assuming you understand “guyspeak.”

The Cleveland Play House production is directed by Jane Page, a woman. It may account for why there are times in the play when there is a feeling of “disconnect” to the interactions. They are paced and presented like women might speak, not guys. This is not to say Page’s direction is way off, but this play might have been better served by a male director who understood the communicative nuances.

The CPH cast is quite good. Michael David Edwards as Michael, effectively portrays the
good-natured guy who gives inspirational speeches to the kids, telling them to enjoy themselves because winning or losing is secondary to the learning experience. Edwards, who looks like a young Mike Nichols, is totally believable in his role. There is an absolutely endearing soliloquy near the end of the play--“please God let my son catch the fly ball.” Edwards nails it for a homerun.

Tony Campisi is good, but he isn’t as quite as Neanderthal as he might be. He barks commands in a less than terrifying manner, so while the lines show a total difference between the men, Campisi’s characterization makes the differences a little shallow. This may be the fault of a woman director interpreting guyspeak. This doesn’t mean the audience should hate Don for being a villain, but we have to clearly see a beer guzzling, lightly educated, “I’m an adult but Little League baseball is my entire life,” high school hero-gone-sour guy.

Bill Clarke’s set design, complete with a real van, works nicely. James C. Swonger’s choice of music is wonderful. From the time you enter the theatre, through scene changes and even after the show, you’ll hear baseball songs that you didn’t know existed. The use of Cleveland Indian’s announcer Tom Hamilton to do the “please turn off your pagers and cell phones” announcement was a wonderful idea. Why, however, was an announcement by New York’s Mel Allen used during the show? That’s not a wise choice in Indian territory!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘ROUNDING THIRD’ is a small but insightful play. Dresser's script isn't as simplistic or formulaic as it might first appear. Most people will enjoy the goings-on because of his humor even if they don’t delve for a deep message. Go- you’ll circle the bases and have a good time.