"Rounding Third": Wisdom from the Dugout
◊◊◊ 1/2 out of five. 1 hour, 35 minutes, plus intermission. Adult language and content.
One might think that having a woman direct Rounding Third, the new comedy by Richard Dresser about two Little League Baseball coaches, might tip the scales toward the sentimental aspects of the script. But, Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler, a local actress making her directorial debut, has come up with a production that is equal parts emotion, male bonding and outright testosterone - and good for her and the Catonsville Theatre Company for going for quality over and macho sexism. Her debut is a solid one, and any problems with the production, few though there are, lie with the script.
Let me say from the get go that this is a funny, ultimately touching production guided with a careful hand, and delivered by two most excellent actors. It is worth going to, and you will be missing out on a lightweight and satisfying evening of theatre.
Ms. Leimkuhler has wisely directed each of the many scenes per act as if each were a small play, but always with an eye toward the bigger, final picture. A less thoughtfully directed version would make Dresser's choppy script feel, well, choppy. Here, mercifully, that only happens when it can't be helped – Dresser abruptly ends a couple of scenes in each act. (The first time it happened, I thought the power went out!) She also has clearly worked hard with her cast to make sure that when the coaches address their team as a whole and individually, that we can visualize the team easily. Both of the coaches' sons figure prominently in the story, and the actors are so good at helping us "see" them, I bet I could pick them out of a line up! Finally, her attention to detail in stage business is very good – not just in the behaviors in the dugout, but in other locales where the play takes place. This play requires some imagination on the part of the audience, and Ms. Leimkuhler does everything she can to help us out, but without ever being heavy-handed or giving us too much.
This Odd Couple meets Damn Yankees show does for male bonding theatre what Steel Magnolias did for the ladies. Don is old school blue collar in his approach to the team. Treat them hard, prepare them for the inevitable failures that life will bring their way. "Belittle in the name of character building, drill them until they break" is his coaching philosophy. He is forced, after his best friend leaves for the bigger leagues, to take on a new assistant coach. Enter Michael, a new age yuppie joining the team as a way to build a relationship with his own son (after a failed attempt with Indian Guides). He is of the "it's not winning or losing that matters, its that you have fun trying and feel good about yourself doing it" school of coaching. Naturally, their styles clash, and a love-hate relationship is born. And you can guess how it ends. But while the ending is inevitable, the few curve balls Dresser throws in, plus a couple of genuinely touching moments, make the journey to the end enjoyable. One such moment really hit home with me, so much so that I feel compelled to give my dad a call when I'm done here. Don is very proud of his ace player son. He thinks they have a special bond, and that they are close. Imagine Don's surprise, and profound disappointment, when his son quits the team to play the lead in Brigadoon. Obvious gay jokes and where-did-I-go-wrong wailing aside, it was an eye-opener for me to see the father's point of view on this touchy subject. I can only imagine how my dad felt when I announced I had joined the drama club at school rather than a sports team. He, like Don, ultimately accepted it, but I bet a few dad fantasies were squashed in the balance. (Thanks for never showing your disappointment to my face and coming to every performance, Dad.)
Of course, with a two man show, much of the focus must and should be on their performances. In this case, CTC has delivered some fine goods. Richard Peck turns in his third consecutive winning performance this year as Don, the head coach, and Vic Cheswick, Jr. is a compelling match for Don as Michael, the new assistant coach for the team. It is a testimony to both actors (and their director) that they manage to mine gold out of the coalmine full of clichés and obvious plotting that Dresser gives them to work with.
Mr. Cheswick plays this touchy-feely good guy role with an endearing earnestness that makes him seem less smarmy and goody-goody than he could be. And thank Heaven for that! Cheswick's eyes belie a pain and urgency that his smooth, clean cut veneer attempts to cover. The reasons for both his pain and his urgent need to connect with his son are revealed in the play, and this fine actor handles both scenes with honesty and real male emotion. His Clark Kent looks and smile are engaging, but his realistic, heartfelt delivery really is what is winning here. He is the man every woman wants – emotionally available – and the man every guys wishes he was – strong and in control.
Mr. Peck, with his beer soaked slur and almost monotone yelling delivery is at first very grating – Don isn't a guy you warm up to quickly, unless you are another Don. Swearing, ogling the attributes of the team moms, and scratching himself makes Don a real man's man, and Mr. Peck attacks that aspect of his role with glee (most likely because it is easy, and decidedly NOT like he is in "real life"). That glee makes him repellant and irresistible simultaneously, not unlike the myriad of similarly simple men we probably all know. But through it all – be it with a slow pause and troubled look that vanishes almost instantly, or with a small smile to himself – Peck gives Don heart, and that makes us feel for him, too, when the chips are down. And, as you'll see when you go, Don's chips are way down.
You'll feel good when you leave this one. And ladies, this is a show you can bring a man to – every man that was at the performance I attended was vocal about their happiness with the show. Who knew sports could be so much fun?
PHOTO: Richard Peck; Richard Peck and Vic Cheswick, Jr.