For Richard Dresser, discovering that his son's Little League coach planned to cheat in a playoff game was a spur to action.
"I was so disturbed and appalled, I knew I had to write about it," the veteran comic playwright and TV writer says.
The result is "Rounding Third," which opens tonight in its West Coast premiere at the Laguna Playhouse.
The duplicitous stratagem -- having a slow baserunner fake an injury in a crucial situation so that a fast kid can be sent in -- turns up in the show, sparking a blowup between the two-character play's odd couple.
Don, the blustery veteran coach, takes Vince Lombardi's line "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" to an extreme. Michael, his new assistant, is a nerdish baseball novice who is coaching so he can spend quality time with his son. He follows the playbook of the great sportswriter Grantland Rice: "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."
As Dresser tells it, in real life the fake-injury ruse prompted parents to warn their kids' cheating-hearted coach to play fair. He used the trick anyway, and it worked. "The commissioner of the league found out about it, and the coach was urged not to come back" for another season, Dresser recalls.
That was in 1999, when Dresser and his family were living in Los Angeles. Soon after, he moved with his wife and son to upstate New York. There, the Massachusetts-raised playwright, a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, became a Little League coach himself. He found that much as he wanted to be like Michael in principle, he had a Don-ish streak that craved victory.
"Don is honestly where a lot of guys live, whether they like it or not," Dresser said by phone this week from his home overlooking the river in Hastings-on-Hudson. "I certainly had to face up to that in writing the character: the way competition even in minor situations gets under your skin and the lengths you go to win."
To keep the play's focus on the motivations of grown-ups, Dresser has kept Little Leaguers out of it. Don and Michael coach phantom players, shouting to thin air as they urge them to keep their eyes on the ball, their heads in the game and, for heaven's sake, their shoelaces tied. "From the get-go I didn't want any children on stage. What I wanted to write about was what kids' sports mean to adults."
Doing without kids, says director Andrew Barnicle, should extinguish any hopes or fears that "Rounding Third" will follow in the formulaic tradition of kid-sports entertainments, such as "The Bad News Bears" and "The Mighty Ducks."
"If there were cute little kids running around up there making wisecracks, that might enter into it, but it doesn't," says Barnicle, the Laguna Playhouse artistic director.
Performing opposite phantom tykes isn't easy, say Michael Mulheren, who plays Don, and Kevin Symons, who is Michael. Barnicle has tried to fill the gap. To help the actors envision scenes, he drew a sketch of Michael's athletically challenged son ("it looks like Rick Moranis as a child," the director says) and, in one rehearsal, impersonated a Little Leaguer by donning an undersized batter's helmet from the duffel bag of baseball equipment that, along with a dirty, aged Dodge van purchased for $750, is one of the show's main props.
Mulheren, who has a speaking voice like Ned Beatty's, recalled the night in 2000 when he and two fellow cast members in the Broadway revival of "Kiss Me, Kate" were up for supporting actor Tony awards, and knew they stood no chance because they would split the vote. "We just sat there and had a great time, because we didn't have to worry about winning or losing. I was Michael that night. If I get nominated again I'll be Don. I'll want to kill whoever's against me."
Barnicle thinks "Rounding Third" fits the tradition of baseball plays that use the game as a metaphor or taking-off point for other concerns -- such as "Take Me Out," the new Richard Greenberg play about a star center fielder who publicly declares he is gay. It will transfer to Broadway next month after a recent run at New York's nonprofit Public Theater.
While Barnicle and his actors see buffoonish elements of Ralph Kramden and Archie Bunker in Don, a house painter who ends up living out of his van, they note there is depth to the character: a piercing wit and a humane streak that surfaces from beneath the blowhard bluster. Michael, the seemingly sympathetic butt of the aggressively rigid and judgmental Don, is a white-collar guy with politically correct, New Age-y philosophies. Dresser says his aim was, at moments, to lend Don "a kind of nobility," while making Michael comically insufferable -- especially when mouthing such right-minded nostrums as "I see our job as creating a safe and nurturing atmosphere where children can dare to be great because they aren't afraid to fail."
"I philosophically agree with Michael, and yet if I heard somebody say that, I'd want to punch him in the mouth," Dresser says.
Although the play's setup puts a beer-drinking, blue-collar man's man opposite an effete, latte-sipping, paper-pushing cell phone slave, Dresser says "Rounding Third" isn't intended as a parable about the clash of socioeconomic classes.
"I just get bored when I feel somebody is just a mouthpiece for a political class or point of view. And if the play was an earnest discussion about what's best for kids, I'd be the first one snoozing. It has to be about the foibles of these two guys and how they defend their own turf."
Some of Dresser's plays are quirks of theater. A short piece he wrote for the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, where a number of his works have premiered, was set in an automobile; the two actors occupied the front seat and the audience -- limited to three people at a time -- sat in back. He's narrowed things even further for a mini-play called "Greetings From the Home Office" that will premiere in May in Albany, N.Y., alongside five other short plays about technology, including one by novelist William Kennedy. There are no live actors in Dresser's short, just an office desk and computer where the lone audience member sits and interacts with recorded voices coming over a speaker phone.
His more conventional full-length works include "Below the Belt," a black comedy about corporate life, and "Gun-Shy" and "Wonderful World," examinations of chaotic marriages that the Laguna Playhouse staged in 2000 and 2001, respectively.
Dresser's TV credits include "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and "Keen Eddie," an upcoming Fox series about a disgraced New York City cop who winds up working for Scotland Yard. He has been immersing himself in the Brian Wilson songbook lately to prepare for his next theatrical gig: writing the story and dialogue for a musical to be woven around Beach Boys songs.
The conflict at the core of "Rounding Third" often intrudes on Dresser's daily life, as he finds himself trying to find a balance between the Lombardian urge to win and the sporting ideal of Grantland Rice. His son, Sam, now 12, is on the verge of being able to beat him steadily at chess, Dresser reports. "I found myself preparing like I was Bobby Fischer" to put off that day. "You don't want to look at this fresh-faced youngster across the board who has just outwitted you."
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: Opens tonight at 7:30. Runs Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.
Ends: Feb. 2
Contact: (949) 497-2787