There is a lifetime of testosterone-driven social angst distilled into Richard Dresser’s tragicomic two-character legiter, set mainly on a Little League playing field, where no-nonsense, win-at-all-costs coach Don (Michael Mulheren) goes mano a mano with new assistant coach Michael (Kevin Symons), a likeably cerebral single father who believes the “joy is in the playing, not the winning.” About halfway through the second act, Dresser exhausts his premise and starts to vamp, but the production is saved by the stellar staging of Andrew Barnicle and a transcendently hilarious performance by 2000 Tony nominee Mulheren (Broadway revival of “Kiss Me Kate”).
The coach vs. coach schism is established at the outset. Perennially gruff Don is the product of the masculine rights of passage that pre-date political correctness by decades. An anal retentive former jock who can recount every minute detail of a losing game he played when he was 12, Don commands his pre-teens as a drill sergeant. Yet he takes an interest in every player to the point of chronicling their strengths and weaknesses in their home lives, as well as on the field. He does what it takes to win, even if it means finding loopholes in the Little League Handbook.
Don finds a perfect foil in Michael, a mild-mannered Canadian who played on a curling team. Perpetually late for practice because of a demanding boss and incessant traffic, Michael endures Don’s unrelenting barbs and sarcasm because of the opportunity coaching offers him to spend time with his nonathletic son, the most inept player on the team. Michael wants to give every kid a chance to feel like he’s achieved something and downplays the competitive urge, which of course infuriates Don.
But there is a deeper agenda to this ball field pas de deux. As Don and Michael haphazardly deal with each other while guiding their team through the Little League season and into the playoffs, the inner demons of their individual lives are eventually revealed.
A house painter by trade, Don submerges himself into coaching to avoid facing the devastating truths about his dysfunctional marriage.
White-collar worker Michael is still grieving over the death of his wife a year earlier, while desperately trying to find some level of comfort in his dead-end job and in his role as a father to a boy who is actually only his stepson.
Dresser runs out of inspiration long before play’s end, but he wisely does not attempt a feel-good resolution to Don and Michael’s relationship. At the end of the season, when Michael mildly suggests they could get together sometime, Don flatly responds, “There is no reason for us to be together. We are not really friends.”
Mulheren brings to the role of Don a brutish vitality, accentuated by awe-inspiring comic timing. His speeches to the unseen players could be a standup comedy act unto themselves. And his disbelieving reactions to Michael’s tentative approach to the game elevate their relationship to the status of a high-level Laurel and Hardy routine. Yet, when Michael inadvertently reveals that Don’s wife might be unfaithful, Mulheren unleashes the palpably dangerous anger that fuels Don’s daily life.
Though overshadowed by the scripter’s emphasis on Don, as well as Mulheren’s larger-than-life portrayal, Symons’ Michael communicates the ambivalence of a good-hearted soul who is sincerely attempting to make the best of a bad situation. It is comically endearing to watch him actually begin to understand and mildly emulate Don’s passion for winning.
Enhancing the production immensely is Dwight Richard Dole’s impressively wrought baseball diamond, accented by the evocative lighting of Paulie Jenkins and the understated but effective sound design of David Edwards.