By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Careers of baseball players and playwrights have more in common than you might think. Both professions have major and minor playing fields. Both require a consistent string of hits to be considered successful. And the end game is elevation to the "big show" that could mean money, awards and fame.
Dallas Theater Center's latest, Back Back Back by Itamar Moses, is a not-so-big show about three professional baseball players and their struggles with steroids. Their names in the play are Raul, Kent and Adam, but the characters loosely resemble Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss. The real-life players came up together through the Oakland A's system, becoming back-to-back-to-back rookies of the year in the mid-1980s. In the play's nine short "innings" we see their careers and friendships rise and fall over a decade as two of them succumb to the boost of "pre-game vitamins" and one does not.
Back Back Back sets up its premise and then balks badly. Not much, or not enough, happens in Moses' wispy-thin dramedy. There's so little substance in it, even about illegal substances, that after the first 15 of its 90 minutes, the show starts to feel like a T-ball game being played at Fenway. It's such a small production that director Hal Brooks has closed off most of the Kalita Humphreys stage (for all but the last scene, which does reveal a nice visual pop on the set designed by Takeshi Kata). With just three characters, this locker room seems under-populated, as if these few players have stuck around long after coaches, teammates and sportswriters have cleared the premises.
Like so many scripts from the new crop of "hot young playwrights"—as with Moses, they tend to be graduates of the major-league drama programs at NYU and Yale—this one adheres to a certain playbook whose moves are becoming all too familiar. Characters take turns spouting casual, chatty, profanity-laden monologues directly to the audience (several of Back's are structured as press conferences). Scenes are shared by two characters, but rarely all three. Dialogue has a canned, ripped-from-the-headlines quality; in this play, some of it sounds like excerpts from published interviews, Canseco's autobiographies and McGwire's testimony before that Congressional committee. And there's the "innings" theme tying it all together, the passing years and team names zipping past on an LED sign above the stage. Slick but gimmicky.
The first "inning" finds the players prepping for Game 1 of a World Series. First baseman Kent (Will Fowler, looking like a small, underfed McGwire) gives rookie second baseman Adam (Dennis Staroselsky) advice for dealing with the media. "Speak in really complete sentences," he tells the nervous kid. The press eats that up, and it kills time before the next question. (Didn't we see this same bit in Bull Durham?)
Cocky right fielder Raul (Juan Javier Cardenas) brings up the possibility of including Adam in his and Kent's "pre-game ritual" (the word "steroids" is never uttered). The "regimen" shortens recovery time from injuries, he tells the newcomer, and puts more power in the legs.
Kent, already using the stuff but reluctant to urge it on anyone else, asks Raul if he's ever been bothered by doing something unethical to win. "Does it bother you that you're taller than most guys?" Raul shoots back. "Does it bother you that you were born in a town that had some money so it had great baseball facilities?" For Raul, baseball is a me-first game, the team and the rules be damned. He'll do whatever it takes to muscle his way up.
The play skims past changes of ball clubs and physical abilities among the three players over ensuing seasons. On the verge of retirement, Raul (like Canseco) writes a bombshell book naming names, including Kent's. That leads to a final, testy confrontation between them in a waiting room outside the Congressional panel where they're about to be grilled. Good scene, but the actors (all out-of-town imports for this production) don't look enough like professional ballplayers, even wearing business suits padded with fake body-bulk, to carry it off. Of the three, Cardenas, playing Raul, at least manages some of the sexy swagger of an MLB superstar.
Back Back Back talks a lot about, but doesn't have, the juice.
Sometimes the play goes right and the audience goes wrong. Opening night of African-American Repertory Theater's fine revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun at DeSoto's Corner Theatre boasted a nearly full house of theatergoers, too many of whom reacted to the epic 1959 drama as if they were watching marathon episodes of Good Times.
Raisin has its lighthearted moments, particularly in the early scenes—"We've all got acute ghetto-itis," carps one character—but on the whole, the three-act play is a wrenching saga of one black family's attempt to break out of poverty.
The Youngers, living on top of each other in a shabby Chicago tenement flat, can't agree how to spend an expected insurance check for $10,000. Mother Lena (played by the always extraordinary Irma P. Hall) dreams of buying the family a home in the suburbs. Thirty-five-year-old son Walter Lee (Vince McGill) wants to invest in a liquor store with a buddy. College-age daughter Beneatha (Regina Washington) has her heart set on medical school, and Walter's wife, Ruth (Taylore Mahogany Scott), has just discovered she's pregnant with their second child.
In this landmark work, the first play by a black woman ever to reach Broadway, scenes get as emotionally raw as in anything by Eugene O'Neill. But at the performance reviewed, the audience kept laughing in places where they shouldn't. Not nervous tittering—long, sustained, hooting guffaws. It threw off the actors' timing, particularly toward the end as the Youngers learn that Walter Lee has lost most of the money they're counting on.
The third act of Raisin is one of the most intensely sad, deeply poignant pieces of writing in American theater. The AART cast members, all wonderful, certainly aren't playing it for comedy. The only flaw in their performances is a tendency to deliver lines upstage in a whisper, rendering some words inaudible to all but the front rows.
What possibly could have prompted the inappropriate response to characters who feel confined by race and class? Walter is a chauffeur, tired of kowtowing to rich white people. Lena and Ruth are domestic workers. Beneatha experiments at finding her "identity" as a black woman, wearing Kinte cloth, letting her hair go natural, dating a Nigerian—radical behavior in the 1950s, but almost quaint today.
In 1959 the play pre-dated desegregation and the Voting Rights Act. The Youngers' hopes of home ownership are nearly derailed by a white neighborhood association fearful of what a white lawyer (Jack O'Donnell) calls "you people."
With a black family in the White House, all that does now seem long ago and far away. But even if the issues raised in A Raisin in the Sun are dated, that doesn't mean the play and the artists performing it don't deserve a little more respect.