Two coaches diverging on game of life at ACT II

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For 21st Century Media

From the moment the first bat hit the first ball, America’s favorite sport has not only provided a forum for athletic endeavor but has also stimulated some great artistic expression in the form of comedies; consider. “A League of Her Own,” “Angels in the Outfield,” my personal favorite “Damn Yankees,” and “The Pride of the Yankees” to name a few.
Richard Dresser’s lovable two-character comedy “Rounding Third” at the Act II Playhouse is an enjoyable night out that appeals to parents, grandparents, former Little League players, coaches, and families in general.
Playwright Dresser’s use of the game as the vehicle for a significant exploration of human relations and values in conflict is very effective and works for even the least informed ballpark visitor.
The play is both easy and pleasant to watch, and the two accomplished actors (Michael Basile and Tony Braithwaite) portray their two characters’ complexities brilliantly. They also make it very easy to believe that there are teams of boys and crowds of other parents close by.
All the action is off the field, on the sidelines, and all the interaction is between two coaches of a Little League team. The coaches are an odd couple whose dialogue is made up of set-ups and responses, lines that are often very funny in themselves but inevitably move in a narrative arc with great understanding and appeal.

Michael Basile stars as Don and Tony Braithwaite stars as Michael in Act II Playhouse's production of  the comedy "Rounding Third," running now  through Oct. 12. Photo by Bill D'Agostino.

Michael Basile stars as Don and Tony Braithwaite stars as Michael
in Act II Playhouse’s production of the comedy “Rounding Third,”
running now through Oct. 12.
Photo by Bill D’Agostino.

Besides giving us a bird’s-eye view of two contrasting Little League coaches in their first season together, this production, in its cozy, comfortable setting, enables the two actors to address the audience, as their team. Hence, the audience becomes an integral part of the show without directly involving our response.
Dresser’s comic meditation on Little League baseball plays nicely on the notion of the odd couple.
The jock is Don (Michael Basile); the house painter who coaches the team and whose son is the star pitcher. The preppy is Michael (Tony Braithwaite; an executive type who has just volunteered to replace the former assistant coach and whose son can’t hit or throw or catch or run.
Not surprisingly, Don belongs to the “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” school of sportsmanship; Michael prefers the “doesn’t matter if you win or lose; it’s how you play the game” approach.
In an entertaining series of brief scenes tracking the practices, games and meetings of the ensuing season, these two men from different planets get to know each other and manage to establish a tense but functional working relationship.
Dresser’s witty and precise dialogue keeps his two characters interesting and his plot devices find the outfield gaps often enough to offer a surprise or two en route to home plate.
Basile and Braithwaite are a marvelous made-for-each other pair of totally incompatible coaches. Yet, they mesh smoothly together as much as their characters seem to be allergic to each other, with impeccable timing, subtle gradations in their roles and seamless adjustments between scenes both on and off the field. They give the gags plenty of breathing room, letting them land gently instead of pushing them too hard.
Some of the best scenes occur when the coaches address audience as if they were members of the eleven-year-old little league team. By breaking the fourth wall, “Rounding Third” escapes the monotony of every scene featuring the same two men. And while there are only the two actors on stage, so convincing is their acting that by the time the play concludes it seems like many of the boys on their team were with them on stage, just a little out of sight.
Three other artists work hand-in-hand to make this production an enjoyable success. Director Matt Silva’s blocking is smooth and economical, James Leitner’s lighting is spot-on and Larry Fowler’s Sound clips between scenes are superbly chosen and add nicely to the show.
In Dresser’s witty baseball tribute, with its fast-ball one-liners and clever plot curves, whether one wins or loses is seamlessly interwoven into how the game is played.
As a cautionary note: in his preface to the published edition of “Rounding Third,” Dresser mused about the social consequences of that “win-at-all-costs” philosophy. He wrote, “how many Enrons are brewing on our Little League fields and in our school gyms under the watchful eyes of overzealous coaches?” A point well taken.

Rounding Third continues at the Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave. Ambler through October 12, 2014. Tickets $24 – #35. Information: 215-654-0200 or www.act2.org

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