Theater review, 'Rounding Third' at Northlight Theater

SportsEntertainmentGeorge WendtLittle League BaseballBaseball

Little League baseball may have a mythic reputation as one of this country's most pure and bucolic pastimes, but the business of children doing competitive sports unleashes a bucketload of American neuroses.

We demand a killer instinct from young athletes with only a passing interest in graduation, yet local media has a field day when out-of-control Little League parents teach their kids to win. Paradoxically, kid-sports also have become metaphors for the lack of simple, family time in over-scheduled America. The tardy, white-collar father on the sidelines, distracted by a cell phone and tomorrow's workday, is as uncomfortable a role model as the uber-competitive jock.

Clearly, this is fertile ground for a modern theatrical comedy of manners. And in his amusing and accessible new comedy, "Rounding Third," playwright Richard Dresser sticks two disparate Little League parent-coaches on a stage done up as a seedy baseball diamond in some dull hinterland town — and plays entertaining ball with precisely these issues.

George Wendt plays a win-at-all-costs coach with a wreck of a van, a wreck of a marriage and a desperate desire not to have any kids on his team who'd be more comfortable trying out for the cast of "Brigadoon." Matthew Arkin plays a just-have-fun-kids assistant coach with an intrusive boss, a stress-induced stutter and a desperate, guilt-induced need for an intimate, bonding experience with his struggling son.

Over the course of two acts and a season of games (the kids and other parents remain cost-effective figments of the audience's imaginations), the two coaches butt heads, trade one-liners and, of course, move closer to each other. Wendt's blue-collar character learns about male intimacy and sensitivity, and reveals that under his gruff competitiveness is a golden heart for kids from troubled homes. And Arkin's professional guy learns about commitment and, most important, the self-empowerment that flows from playing to win.

The weakness of "Rounding Third" is its conventional structure and its reliance on archetype. It's narrative progression is predictable — the show sometimes feels like a clever idea for a sketch extended over two hours — and the two characters are as much group and class representatives as human beings. Still, that's a charge one could level against many other commercial comedies.

The play — which would have been more at home in one of the grittier off-Loop venues where Wendt once worked — is a tad overproduced at Northlight. But director B.J. Jones has cast and staged the show very well. Wendt didn't look as if he was firing on all cylinders on opening night, but much of his appeal as an actor has always come from surprise. Laconic and seemingly sedentary, he has intermittent but carefully chosen bursts of dramatic energy. And his comic timing, honed from his sitcom days, is impeccable.

Nicely whiny and intense, Arkin is a fine foil — although it takes until far too deep in the second act for the script to give him enough material for him to flesh out his character.

As the run progresses, these two guys likely will relax around the script and each other enough that they'll be able to dig a little deeper into the all-American psyche. If this droll show can get that extra dose of pain, it'll get a good bit further around the field.

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