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Rounding Third

Baseball as a metaphor for life is neither an original brainstorm nor a neglected theatrical theme. But that needn't detract from the solid entertainment value of Dresser's gentle comedy about a gung-ho jock with a win-or-die philosophy and a sensitive yuppie with a naive belief in the character-building aspect of team sports.

Cast:
Don - Robert Clohessy Michael - Matthew Arkin

Baseball as a metaphor for life is neither an original brainstorm nor a neglected theatrical theme. (Unless, of course, you come from Boston or Chicago, where baseball tends to be a virtual substitute for life and the natives can never get enough of the stuff.) But that needn’t detract from the sweet and solid entertainment value of Dresser’s gentle comedy about two Little League coaches, a gung-ho jock with a win-or-die philosophy and a sensitive yuppie with a naive belief in the character-building aspect of team sports, who act out their conflicting attitudes about manhood on the playing field — and discover (surprise!) that they have a lot in common.

Enacted with warm humor and affection by Robert Clohessy and Matthew Arkin, the two suburban dads who battle it out on the diamond run as true to type as any sitcom Odd Couple. Coach Don (Clohessy) is a house painter, the kind of blue-collar guy who clings for dear life to his whistle, his clipboard and his belief in the rules of the game. Subject to his own pragmatic amendments, that means playing to win, taking your lumps, not crying until you’re off the field and, on occasion, cheating a little to give your team an edge.

Clohessy wears Don’s sweaty machismo with honor and pride — and no apologies. He mouths the pieties of good sportsmanship (“Rest assured every kid on my team will learn and grow and sportsmanship and fun and…”) with hilarious deadpan sincerity. And when Dresser gives him something deeper to work with, he plays the emotion without flinching. “This isn’t supposed to be fun,” he explodes at one point. “In the real world everything’s hard, in case you didn’t notice. Jobs are hard, money’s hard, being alone’s hard, being with someone else is impossible. … You want to give these kids something? Make ’em winners. Give ’em a shot at a life that doesn’t break their hearts.” Without patronizing — or, worse, canonizing — the big lug, Clohessy gives eloquent voice to the fears of inadequacy that Don keeps pushing away with his outbursts of bravado.

Although Michael’s “candy-ass opinions” about the game carry less conviction than Don’s working-class verities, Arkin gives each one careful thought, so that even the most P.C. banality carries sweet conviction and delicious humor. “Play to the best of your ability!” the clueless assistant coach cheers on his team. “We’re all winners if we do our best, on the playing field or at work or at home!” The postmodernist sentiments that drive Don crazy keep the audience in stitches — but, thanks to Arkin’s honest portrayal, the laughter never demeans his character.

Dresser (“Below the Belt”) has an easy, not to say facile, way with the ritualistic sports vocabulary that men use to communicate with each other without really giving much away. But he uses that talent for guy talk mainly for comic effect here. Except for some telling exchanges between Don and Michael about their respective sons, who are a palpable (if invisible) presence on the team, he seems resistant to offering up more than the bare outlines of his characters’ domestic lives.

To be fair, director John Rando might have done more to flesh out these outlines in production. The sterility of Derek McLane’s near-bare playing field of chain-link fencing and fake turf leaves it to F. Mitchell Dana’s tentative lighting cues and Jill B.C. DuBoff’s scarcely noticeable sound design to provide some hint of shifting scene and time sequences. This sense of being nowhere might have been intentional, but we’re not on Samuel Beckett’s existential turf, and the overall sense of emptiness only emphasizes the play’s lack of depth and definition.

Rounding Third

John Houseman Theater; 286 seats; $55

Production: An Eric Krebs, Ted Tulchin, Robert G. Bartner, Chase Mishkin, Jerry Frankel presentation, in association with M. Kilburg Reedy, of a new play in two acts by Richard Dresser. Directed by John Rando.

Creative: Set, Derek McLane; lighting, F. Mitchell Dana; sound, Jill B.C. DuBoff; music, Robert Reale; production stage manager, Jack Gianino. Opened, reviewed Oct. 7, 2003. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: Don - Robert Clohessy Michael - Matthew Arkin

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