But Tony Baroni, his assistant coach for the past three years, and a legend in Don’s mind, has moved with his son on up to the next league level. At the first practice of this season, the new guy, Michael (Christopher Lawyer) shows up, and the two are off to an uneasy start in this amiable comedy which works its way through the reconciliation of opposites and the eternal metaphor of baseball representing life.
Though he’s undeniably a bully, there is something sad about Don too, and he is a cliché in the world of men: the ex-jock who had it all before high school graduation but then found adult life to be very different. He is a housepainter without a college education, and by this point, he realizes that he will achieve nothing greater by the measures of worldly success. He is sensitive about what he perceives as his lack of achievement, but he covers it up with bravado and b.s. When cell-phone toting, tie-wearing Michael, who Don would probably call a “yuppie,” appears for their first coach’s meeting, Don is immediately put off by the younger man. Don is one of those guys who nicknames everyone as a way to control them—name it and it’s yours—and he constantly rejects “Mike’s” repeated requests to be called “Michael.” Don is offended that his offer of a beer is rejected, and immediately leaps to the conclusion that Michael is a recovering alcoholic, but that’s okay. “It’s a sickness, and I don’t judge.” (“I don’t judge,” and “I only have one rule” are Don’s mantras.)
So, on the surface, it would appear that Oscar and Felix have decided to coach Little League, but as is so often true with men, what is on the outside is what is shown, but what is truly interesting lies beneath. The play by Richard Dresser (which was originally produced in Chicago with George Wendt as Don) is humorous throughout, and the audience I was in enjoyed it a lot. One man asked at intermission if he was “laughing too much.” Yeah, there’s an actor’s nightmare: a responsive audience member. But while the play is funny, it isn’t mean-spirited or a pointed satire on the horrors of childhood and the ogres one must survive to grow up. It is a rather gentle story, actually, delicately told, about two guys who may (or may not) be what they seem and may (or may not) become friends.
Michael’s story opens up slowly. His son is actually a stepson whose father is in the 7th year of a pilgrimage in Nepal. (“Nepal? Like in Nepal? Don asks, incredulously.) Michael is desperate for bonding opportunities. Indian guides didn’t work out. A funny bit ensues when Don tries to get Michael to reveal his Indian name, which he’s reluctant to do, so Don threatens to call him “Chief Itchy Itchy Scrotum” in front of the kids unless Michael tells what it was. His relentless teasing further reveals Don’s adolescent side, as well as Michael’s secretive nature. But, for the good of the game, the two men have to learn to co-exist, and it doesn’t help that Don’s son, Jimmy, is the best player on the team, and Michael’s boy, Frank, is a klutz and sent immediately to right field. Due to a mix-up about the boy’s last name, Don had already relegated Frank to the reject pile (he actually has Jimmy scout the potential players on the playground and write reports) when he learns that he’s going to have to put Frank on the roster after all. Complications ensue.
Sarah L. Armstrong has directed with sensitivity and understanding, and the actors do excellent work in making these potential stereotypes (especially Don) into relatable, three-dimensional characters. Men watching see the unregenerated jock vs. the kid who never got picked for the team. They remember their own Little League (or other sport) days and I’d be surprised if more than a few didn’t squirm a little hearing Don’s many “one rules” or listening to his taunts. Some dads who have grown up to be coaches may be like Don, but these days, they’re much more likely to imitate Michael, whose style is the polar opposite of Don’s. He believes the boys should just go out there, have some fun, bond with each other by building a team, and have an overall good-for-the-self-esteem experience. But then there is an incident where the two men really go up against each other, and both emerge changed from the encounter.
The cleverly constructed set with a couple of pieces of fence that are shoved around into various configurations, depending on the situation in front of us and two slatted pieces that can be either chairs or a bench, or even the front seat of Don’s van, is versatile. There are three banks of stadium-style lights, as well, and the sound design is especially effective. Since the two actors are the only people we ever see, the games and practices are all conjured up in our imaginations by what we hear. Also, musical selections before the show and during intermission set the mood with baseball themed songs everyone knows. Attention to detail has been such that even the “turn off your phones” spiel is themed to the show, closing with the “last two words of the National Anthem, ‘Play Ball!’). Credit goes to Sean Savoie (set), Alan Chlebowski (lights), and Rusty Wandall (sound). JC Krajicek’s costumes help delineate the differences between Don and Michael, as well.
At one point, Michael says this is just a kids’ game and they won’t remember whether they won or lost later in life, but they will remember that they played. That’s a good summary for Rounding Third: You may not remember it for a long time, but you will certainly enjoy the ride. I hope you’ll take in the “game” at HotCity before the season is over.