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Little league coaches give all the wrong signs in Rounding Third.

Richard Dresser's story leaves Michael (left) and Don - stranded.
  • Richard Dresser's story leaves Michael (left) and Don stranded.
It's odd that a sport with a pace as leisurely as baseball's would generate such passion and controversy. After all, a baseball game offers a few seconds of intermittent action separated by long stretches of jockstrap adjustment, rosin-bag fiddling, and batting-glove restrapping. It's one of the few sports where the conclusion isn't determined by a clock; everyone keeps playing until one side makes 27 outs, whenever the hell that is. Still, this unhurried, pastoral pastime has created more than its share of florid headlines, from the ongoing scandals of players such as Jose Canseco jabbing themselves and others with biceps-popping steroids to the often bizarre behavior of little league managers, coaches, and parents.

The latter is putatively the subject matter of Rounding Third, now at the Cleveland Play House. Playwright Richard Dresser has put his finger on a rich topic, combining as it does the innocent aspirations of children with the often more complex motivations of their adult supervisors, but he manages to whiff on nearly every score. Which is not to say the man can't write some funny lines. But the jokes here emanate mostly from Dresser's glib facility with clichés and stereotypes, not from any deeper source of personality or plot development.

This two-character piece sets blue-collar manager Don against his new assistant, baseball-ignorant Michael, who's a corporate executive during the day. Right from the start, the gruff, beer-swigging skipper is at odds with his latté-sipping aide, so it's obvious that the relationship between Oscar and Felix -- sorry, Don and Michael -- will be as contentious as a Barry Bonds press conference. Each man has a son on the team, and, of course, Don's kid Jimmy is the star pitcher, while Michael's stepson Frankie is a nearsighted klutz who couldn't catch a ball with a laundry basket. To make Michael even more sneeringly unmanly, he's originally from Canada, where he used to play curling.

This horsehide odd couple tries to communicate its different approaches to the team, represented by the audience, in a series of pep talks. Don is the aggressive, win-at-all-costs disciplinarian, while Michael tells his players to "Do the best you can, no one can ask for more" and, shockingly, "It's OK to cry." Even with such predictable characters, this format could delve into some interesting areas regarding how our culture views competition and masculinity.

But Dresser is more interested in staging punch lines than in mounting a thoughtful comedy, so he relies on nonsensical reversals to fuel the flaccid story line. As the playoffs approach, Don's unseen son Jimmy decides to quit the team so that he can join the cast of Brigadoon -- an idea that's funny but goofily implausible, given what we know up to that point. Also, the tough-as-nails Don, who proudly boasts his fondness for revenge fantasies ("Sometimes you could choke the life out of people, bury them under a swimming pool, and sleep like a baby"), chooses to warm up his troops by leading them in, of all things, the Macarena. Other surprises just drop out of the sky, as when we learn that Michael's wife is dead and that Michael has been dating a flirtatious mom whom Don has been lasciviously eyeing at the ballfield.

This wimp vs. macho-man gamesmanship grows wearying until, in the second act, the ultimate reversal occurs when Don quits the team after he learns his wife is cheating on him with his former assistant coach. You don't have to be Nostradamus to predict how that will affect Michael, now the manager, and whether hapless Frankie will make the Big Catch in the Big Game. The playwright certainly has a gift for the well-turned comic phrase -- explaining the tragedy of not thinking clearly in baseball, Don says, "Holding onto the ball and running in a figure-eight pattern in the outfield is a mental error." But his decision to keep the proceedings superficial -- it's never clear why Don would so abruptly leave his cherished position because of his wife's adultery -- gives a hollow ring to the laughter.

Under the brisk direction of Jane Page, Michael David Edwards works hard to make Michael credible. His time-stopping speech, when the fly ball is soaring toward his son, is a lovely and honest moment in a play too short of both. As Don, stocky and balding Tony Campisi has the perfect look and sharp comic timing. But by overenunciating his words and maintaining a mechanical rhythm within his lines, Campisi never fully relaxes into the role and misses a chance to make Don more sympathetic and accessible. Due to the unfulfilled potential on display here, a more accurate title might be Picked Off at First.

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