Richard Dresser has written a string of acclaimed comedies in the last 20 years without quite breaking through to the theatrical big time. Maybe "Rounding Third," about a Little League team's coaching staff, will finally get him to home base.
Now in its West Coast premiere at Laguna Playhouse, with another production taking the field at Globe Theatres in San Diego later this year, "Rounding Third" uses only two actors -- as opposed to the larger casts of Dresser's more complex scripts, such as "The Downside," "Better Days" and "Wonderful World."
In an era of restricted budgets at many theaters, a cast of two automatically gives this play an edge in terms of future productions.
The subject matter is accessible, and the comic potential is evident. Who hasn't heard about overreaching Little League coaches and parents?
These attributes wouldn't count for much, of course, if Dresser hadn't written a funny play -- and one that has a few surprises. "Rounding Third" easily satisfies both conditions.
When you think about Little League comedy, the image that most often comes to mind is that of frantic parents who try to achieve vicarious success through their children. But the two fathers of Little League players in "Rounding Third" are more directly invested in the action. One of them is the team's veteran and ultra-competitive coach, while the other is a much less intense newcomer who has volunteered to help out as assistant coach.
Don (Michael Mulheren) is the grizzled proponent of winning at all costs. A house painter by trade, his heart is out on the playing field, expertly suggested by Dwight Richard Odle's chain-link sets. In contrast, Michael (Kevin Symons) believes that the kids should simply do their best, have fun and not worry so much about winning
At first glance, as the two men size each other up in a bar, Mulheren's Don looks strikingly like Archie Bunker. But Don appears to be bigoted only against those people who don't share his enthusiasm for winning at baseball. In an amusing self-analysis later in the play, Don acknowledges that he thinks about his team 55% of the time.
Don sounds so defensive and wary at that first meeting that you wonder why white-collar Michael isn't frightened off. It can't be encouraging when Michael learns that his own kid is already on Don's list of weak players, compiled from scouting reports by Don's son.
Besides, Michael works for a corporate boss who won't leave him alone, ringing him up on his cell phone at the most inopportune moments. Why would Michael want to subject himself to pressure from an equally demanding boss during his unpaid leisure hours?
Michael's reasons are among the surprises that are revealed later in the play. Without giving them away, we can say that they have something to do with his marriage. And it turns out that Don, too, has a very different sort of marital distraction that provides narrative juice.
Director Andrew Barnicle and the actors handle Dresser's succession of first-string laugh lines with consummate timing. If the play occasionally sounds like a TV comedy, it's a very high-quality show, with only a couple of details that seem too stereotyped (Michael brings beer-drinking Don a cup of mocha latte) or coincidental (when Michael hits fly balls in practice, guess where the first one lands).
Mulheren is a master at bluff retorts. Symons has a puppy-dog demeanor that makes him an ideal foil; his Michael often waves cheerily at his son out on the field. Each man eventually develops a bit of sympathy for the other, but Dresser deliberately undermines any fantasies that they'll become lifelong buddies, or that they'll jointly lead the team to a string of championships.
Dresser himself, however, is clearly ready for the major leagues.
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.
Ends: Matinee, Feb. 4.
Price: $42 to $49.
Contact: (949) 497-2787.
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
By Richard Dresser. Directed by Andrew Barnicle. Sets and costumes by Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting by Paulie Jenkins. Sound by David Edwards. Production stage manager Nancy Staiger.