Itamar Moses rifles baseball’s lockers for drugs and thematic resonance in “Back Back Back,” a play whose nine scenes or “innings” (with a stretch in the seventh) merit some of the charges often directed at the national pastime itself. Steroids semi-documentary is stiff and logy, a few moments of action separated by enough stretches of tedium to prompt spectators to start the wave or keep a beach ball aloft. Flat effort premiering at the Old Globe won’t do much to move its author toward the big leagues.
To populate his exploration of pro sports’ most nagging recent scandal, the precocious scribe of “Bach at Leipzig” and “The Four of Us” audaciously represents an Oakland A’s trio of consecutive American League rookies of the year, including two of the foremost alleged or self-confessed “juicers” of them all.
Despite name changes, no one will fail to see Mark McGwire in Kent (Brendan Griffin), the confident red-headed slugger and team leader, or Jose Canseco in Raul (Joaquin Perez-Campbell), the egotistical, foul-mouthed bad boy. Third leg is Adam (Nick Mills), stand-in for Walt Weiss, whose relative anonymity and noninvolvement in doping are used as plot points. (Chronology, teams and proper names are otherwise true-to-life.)
Play’s 20-year span begins as Kent persuades Raul not to initiate rookie Adam into their unique regimen of weight training and bathroom-applied “pregame vitamins.” Traded to different teams over time, the guys keep crossing paths in offices, dugouts or congressional anterooms, the specter of performance enhancers always present.
Yet the S-word itself is never uttered.
“Back Back Back” really cares little about juice or juicers per se. Its thesps never carry themselves as bulked-up, super-acne’d titans, nor do they seem to shrink when usage has ended (costumer Christal Weatherly might’ve helped there). And there are no delicious moments of ” ‘roid rage,” no high-octane tantrums amidst mostly polite interactions.
What gets the scribe juiced is the opportunity to wax eloquent on issues of fair play, the nature of excellence and the sportsmanship ethic. (Surely that’s why Moses settled on these two: McGwire the gifted extemporaneous speaker, and Canseco the tell-all memoirist.)
Raul sees no problem in proselytizing for chemical assistance as “the only way to make it fair” once free agency killed off team spirit, with every jock for himself. Meanwhile, Kent’s very being quivers at the prospect of cheating, but he’s not above begging for performance enhancement at the prospect of breaking the home run record.
Characters’ propensity for explicitly working out Moses’ musings gives “Back Back Back” its contrived air. Surely the real guys didn’t see themselves as metaphors for America’s success-at-any-price mentality.
The contemplation they’re forced to utter is stilted; there’s an even more pronounced artificiality when they turn to mundane matters. Relationships fail to ring true physically as helmer Davis McCallum blurs the difference between whispered exchanges and expansive, room-filling announcements.
Mills does best as the representative of innocence and decency, while Griffin seems hamstrung in pinning a coherent personality on Kent, as if McGwire were in attendance and no one wanted to offend him. Meanwhile, Perez-Campbell needs to find some rhythmic and volume variety lest Raul remain unwelcome by the end of the interminable second inning, which drags on long after all three actors have struck out.
A wisp of suspense and dramatic interest finally sneaks in when the Feds show interest and mutual suspicions fester. But did Weiss, or anyone else, really wire up to entrap a superstar at an All-Star Game batting practice? During “Back Back Back,” we may not always know what we’re supposed to believe, but we’re usually pretty sure what we can’t.