Rounding Third flounders most when it tries to get serious. Luckily, it doesn’t try very hard, and delivers considerable amusement.
By Jim Kates.
Rounding Third by Richard Dresser. Directed by Keith Stevens. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through September 9.
In her marvelous poem “Baseball,” Gail Mazur tries unsuccessfully to warn us: “The game of baseball is not a metaphor / and I know it’s not really life.” In his formulaic comedy Rounding Third, Richard Dresser takes the metaphor for granted and lets it lie, and I think he does think it is life. Nevertheless, all the action is off the field, on the sidelines, and all the interaction is between two coaches of a Little League team. The latter is an an odd couple whose dialogue is made up of set-ups and responses, lines that are often very funny in themselves and just as often situationally funny but inevitably move in a narrative arc as obvious as a rookie’s fast ball right down the middle. And as with that fat pitch, our satisfaction comes from knowing what’s coming and our being ready to connect, not from being dazzled by the pitcher’s “passion how to avoid the obvious,” as another wonderful bard of baseball, Robert Francis, has put it.
So there’s the two of them on the Peterborough Players stage—two guys thrown together by their separate needs who will need to be completed by the other—Don (Jack Koenig) the beer-drinking, working-class, hardass, Little League coach with his own tough-but-vulnerable world view, and his new assistant Michael (Kraig Swartz), who has stumbled into volunteering as an assistant coach in spite of knowing next to nothing about baseball and, it appears, even less about relating to another human being. He would surely be henpecked if his wife were around. She’s not, as we learn in one of the play’s sudden plunges into depth (and I won’t give it away here). Instead, he’s boss-pecked.
By the end of the second act (surprise, surprise), Michael has learned a lot about baseball, a lot about Don, and a lot more about himself. Don has grown and mellowed, not quite as blatantly as Michael. Still, having the male bonding of the Little League season in front of him and the big people’s problems behind him has worked theatrical magic on Don as well. Let’s not turn up our noses at the formula—a baseball game also proceeds according to a storyline we know in advance—we just don’t know precisely who and how until the last inning. And the lines in Rounding Third are funny.
Even funnier are the silences. Director Keith Stevens knows how to let a beat go by. Some of the biggest laughs of the evening come between the lines, in fair territory. This, of course, plays to Kraig Swartz’s art, but here he doesn’t have the madly comic role. For the most part, he’s the set-up man, and watching him play buttoned-down restraint provides its own pleasure. We know he’ll bust out eventually, sort of. And sort of it is. Koenig swaggers and pumps and pops his blue collar but conveys from the very beginning the loneliness and insecurity underneath. We know his problems there before they manifest themselves not just because the plot will demand them but because Koenig communicates them. Predictable, but another pleasure to watch.
For much of the play, director Stevens has the two characters hardly engaging with each other. Rather, they stand side by side staring out at us (the playing field) talking up the invisible team and talking between themselves. It’s risky, and I’ve seen that kind of thing fail all too often, but they make it work.
The play flounders most when it tries to get serious. Luckily, it doesn’t try very hard. A question of ethics rears an ugly head, and gets quickly dispatched without consequence. It was all a mistake.
Toward the end of Rounding Third, in the course of a prayer fervently launched into the air, Michael says desperately, “I need to believe there’s some meaning in this.” His prayer gets answered; still, there’s not much meaning in either its fulfillment or in the tropes of baseball in the play, and there doesn’t need to be. Dresser’s comedy, like Mazur’s ball park, “is an artifact, / manicured, safe . . . the firm structure with the mystery of accidents always contained.” That could also be a definition of comedy, but baseball is not a metaphor.