Coaches' Corner

Invisible Theatre gets a hit with its new baseball-related play

From the bleachers to the dugout, actors Michael Woodson and Jeff Scotland seem to have a thing for plays about baseball at the Invisible Theatre. Which is OK, because they do them well. After appearing in the ensemble cast of last season's Bleacher Bums, Woodson and Scotland have returned to the IT baseball field for an entertaining production of Richard Dresser's two-person piece Rounding Third.

This time around, instead of playing Chicago Cubs fans, they are a pair of ill-matched Little League coaches in an unnamed sleepy suburban American town.

Under the direction of IT stalwart James Blair, the actors quietly nail these two disparate characters, drawing rich characterization from what could have been cardboard stereotypes.

Head coach Don (Woodson) is a genial working class schlub who paints houses, likes a few beers, wears a dirty sweatshirt, lives to coach and fools around with the occasional Little Leaguer's mom.

Don also sorely misses his pal and former assistant coach Tony, to whom he is constantly comparing Michael. But Tony mysteriously is no longer around; we don't learn where he is until later in the play. New assistant coach Michael has never played baseball; instead, he was a curling player during his childhood in Canada. He wears work slacks with spotless white sneakers, prefers mocha lattes, seems to be the only driver who can find heavy traffic in their small town and is always taking cell phone calls from his boss.

Upon meeting, both men immediately sense their differences. Don constantly refers to Michael as Mike or Mikey, despite his assistant coach's protestations. Michael tells the players that having fun is more important than winning games, contradicting Don's long-standing ethos that it's not fun unless you're winning.

They both have sons on the team, but their relationships with each couldn't be more different, either. Both speak of their wives, but telling details take time to surface.

The script is full of rich details, such as the facts that Michael and his son are trying baseball because they didn't take to Indian Guides and that the league commissioner is on a prison work-release program. Also explored are the subtle differences between the commands "go" and "hurry," the importance of double-knots in shoelaces and the serious business of snacks at practice and after games.

The easy rhythms of the men's stage banter and their comedic timing are excellent, whether they are directing their lines to each other or to the pint-sized players in the field over the heads of the audience. Even a predictable joke about a player wearing his athletic cup on the outside of his uniform is delivered with ease and precision, like a slugger powering a homer over the centerfield fence.

Naturally, tempers are bound to flare, but Don and Michael are destined to grudgingly learn to appreciate each other's divergent viewpoints. It is to the play's credit, too, that it does not overtly depict either man as needing to vicariously re-experience their childhood through those of their respective sons, nor are they updates of grizzled old Buttermaker from The Bad News Bears. These guys rise above clichés. Both actors handle the delicate blocking with well-rehearsed flair, especially Scotland, who easily makes Michael's clumsiness--tripping over stuff, bumping into Don--seem smoothly natural. But on opening night, the physicality of a climactic onstage tussle and an otherwise great scene in which the offending cell phone goes buh-bye seemed a tad tentative.

There's little doubt, though, that after a few performances, each man will be more comfortable throwing himself into the action scenes with second-nature abandon.

Heading toward its slightly abrupt resolution, the script rushes through emotional revelations and the inevitable male bonding through a form of narrative shorthand. Somehow, that seems right, though.

When the pair discovers they're friends, it is communicated in typically ironic, regular-guy code. Not only is it not acknowledged, but it's out-and-out denied. They are unable to openly state affection for each other, but you can feel it. It just is, ya know?

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