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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Playing Little League for big laughs

The Odd Couple trope is used often on stage and screen.

An opposites-attract sort of deal between two people who fall into hilarious circumstances, bicker because of their differences yet find common ground and an understanding friendship. “Rounding Third,” by Richard Dresser, follows this pattern until the end, when Dresser declines to wrap up the play in a tidy bundle.
Don (JP Sarro) plays the coach of a Little League baseball team. A blunt, brash, all-American bully, he’s dedicated to winning above all. Michael (Scott Treadway) is a nervous, twitchy, fluttery Canadian, who knows nothing of baseball, yet is determined to be the new assistant coach to support his equally awkward son. Don has many rules, some made up on the spot, but all aimed at winning. On the pitch and over Michael, who he sees as a self-important, white-collared adversary to his own life as a painter with marriage troubles.
The show is directed by Charlie Flynn-McIver, who in the past starred in “The Odd Couple” at the Playhouse, and acted opposite Scott Treadway in “Rounding Third” itself at Asheville’s NC Stage Co. Adding to all this “bro-medy” experience is JP Sarro, who also performed in “The Odd Couple” previously. All three men are accomplished actors, seasoned in all the right ways to pull off Richard Dresser’s most popular work. So, what was awry?
Certainly not the lights, sound or set design. CJ Barnwell, David Gerena and Dennis C. Maulden, respectively, deserve accolades for their artistic choices. The lighting showed the passage of time and fit the “weather” in each scene. The snippets of what sounded like children’s songs about baseball in between scenes kept the mood bright, and gave the audience a chance to breathe. And the set, simple at first glance, until you notice the painter’s van cut in half and parked stage right. A dugout sits center stage, with the roof cleverly made of clear material to let the light reach the leaf-strewn bench below. Stage left stands a bar used only in the very first scene when Don sips a beer while sizing up Michael as his assistant. There’ve been versions of “Rounding Third” where the bar doesn’t exist and the two meet on the pitch, but despite the lack of use the bar is fitting for the Playhouse’s roomy main stage. It creates balance, and, after all, Dresser felt it belonged. He wrote it into the script.
Scott Treadway embodies businessman Michael fully. Naturally prone to bending his tall frame in emphasis with his lines, Treadway as the doting father who just wants to have fun makes the perfect foil to Sarro’s Don. However, the rapid-fire dialogue between the two actors dominates the pace of the play, and Treadway’s mannerisms are overshadowed by his cast-mate’s aggressive, full-speed ahead approach.
JP Sarro’s portrayal as Don can be strenuous to watch. From the beginning he’s a runaway train, hurling his lines without pause, and seemingly without breathing. And, while good comedy often relies on a faster pace to effect audience investment through the setup and then delivery of punchlines, Sarro doesn’t leave much room for Dresser’s witticisms to land. The largest laugh of the premiere occurred when Sarro took a full beat before dishing out a one-liner.
Sarro does slow the train down a couple times in the second act, not fully stopping at any station for the audience to get on board, but at least giving a passing glimpse into a deeper layer to Don. A welcome change from the onslaught of abrasive monologues and retorts, all conveyed at the same high level of emotion. And while this provides plenty of room for Sarro to calm Don down enough for viewers to become invested in the roots behind his anger, it doesn’t leave space to take Don anywhere else. Starting out so intensely limits the range Sarro can give to Don, which in turn limits the brilliant writing of the script.
“Rounding Third” is a witty take on the classic Odd Couple setup. While this pair has little in common, the conflict between two schools of thought on raising children is worth the watch, especially since Dresser ends his play inconventionally, discarding the trope at the last minute to leave patrons with a messier finale and, perhaps, more than a few questions on what it takes to bring out the best in young people, especially when their elders are still childlike in their own ways.

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 “Rounding Third” is playing at the Flat Rock Playhouse through Sunday. For tickets visit flatrockplayhouse.org or call 828-693-0731.