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Hitting for the Cycle: Nine

Short Plays About Baseball

Famous Door Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

The time may be near when baseball as a theme in literature will be a completely absurd idea. Sure, the game will always be around in one form or another--as long as there are gym classes and shoe contracts and parents living vicariously as Little League coaches. But not baseball. Not the baseball that inspired Walt Whitman to write reams of poetry. Not the baseball that seduced Jack Kerouac into playing fantasy board games with his favorite players alone atop a mountain. Not the baseball that led Bob Dylan to write an ode to Jim "Catfish" Hunter or that inspired Bernard Malamud, Stuart Dybek, Ring Lardner, and Philip Roth to use the game as a metaphor for life.

In anaesthetized, corporate facilities like the new White Sox park, where faceless, humorless, personality-challenged ballplayers rack up statistics and endorsement dollars, where droning announcers devoid of character induce sleep, where obstetricians pay top dollar to sit in club seats and talk loudly on cell phones, where noise-o-meter scoreboards tell the crowd when to cheer, the poetry that was baseball is all but gone. Perhaps it's just as well that media saturation, combined with the greed exhibited during the baseball strike, has stripped the veneer off the pro game to present it as it is and probably always was--a kids' game played largely by self-important, none-too-swift drunks, philanderers, and automatons. But there's not much beauty or resonance in that image. And though there may always be a certain charm to baseball and its splendid geometry, chances are that we'll have to rent Gary Cooper and Robert Redford movies to remember what it was that moved so many artists to take a game and transform it into poetry.

The best moments of Famous Door Theatre Company's Hitting for the Cycle, a collection of nine short plays about baseball, come when director Anna Bahow and her lineup of 12 actors are able to reclaim the game's metaphorical weight. These are the moments, equivalent to the crack of ball against bat, when time stands still, the consciousness of player and viewer fuses, and the stadium and theater disappear. They're not defining moments but the in-betweens: the flutter of a white sheet upon Robert G. Smith's green stage representing a ballpark in winter, a revelatory witticism in a monologue scripted by Eric Overmyer, the look of pain and defiance on the face of a teenage boy at a ballpark (played by Ted Schneider).

Originally devised and coproduced here by west-coast-based Bay Package Productions, Hitting for the Cycle lasts two hours--about as long as a baseball game should but rarely ever does--and unlike today's monotonous game, it crackles with divergent moods and personalities. Strangely, with the odor of hot dogs wafting in from the lobby and the actors onstage performing warm-ups before the show and signing autographs, Famous Door feels more like a ballpark than most new stadiums. And though there are some definite whiffs in the batting order here, only a few of the plays strike out, and most are bona fide hits.

In drama as in baseball, it's a good idea to make a strong statement with a speedy, wily leadoff batter. Heather McDonald's Rain and Darkness, an ethereal playlet about a woman and her umpire father who probably loved Ted Williams more than he did her, subverts the usual baseball metaphors about the timelessness of the game and its value as a symbol of ephemeral youth. McDonald captures baseball's beauty and sadness through stunningly poetic images of baseball fields toward the end of the season, as a lone umpire stands like a child fearing rain, darkness, and his fate. Weaving together nostalgia and cynicism, McDonald juxtaposes idyllic imagery of the game with the real human consequences when those who play it never grow out of it. The only problem with McDonald's play, and Bahow's delicate direction, is the unspeakably high standard it sets for the plays that follow.

The second batter is never a team's best player--he's usually quick and scrappy, more concerned with making contact than knocking the ball out of the park. Arthur Kopit's short, witty monologue Elegy for the House That Ruth Built is a slight piece about a replacement New York Yankees ballplayer who turned his back on the game when he realized that evil Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was luring him to tread upon hallowed ground. Cheekily reminiscent of the treacly film Field of Dreams, the monologue is unevenly performed by the normally reliable Will Casey in an unconvincing Bridgeport-ian cadence, but it's cute and diverting enough to keep the opening rally going.

Batting third, and introducing what should be the meat of any team's order, is Quincy Long's Gamboling on the Game, a befuddling vaudevillian musical satire of the controversy between Pete Rose and former baseball commissioner (and Yalie) A. Bartlett Giamatti, who banned "Charlie Hustle" for gambling. Weakly imitating a number of musical genres while presenting Rose's and Giamatti's cases before a panel of comical judges, this sketch seems intended to parody the former commish's fatuous paeans to the sanctity of the game, but it's both toothless and tasteless. This is as good a time as any to check out the concession stands.

One must return quickly, however, for the clean-up batter, the heavy hitter, the heart of the lineup: Overmyer's devilishly clever The Dalai Lama Goes Three for Four, a gleefully cerebral monologue delivered by the Dalai Lama himself about his approach to baseball. Funny without ever being disrespectful to either the Tibetan leader or the American pastime, Overmyer actually makes one rethink the philosophical underpinnings of the baseball cliche "We're gonna take things one game at a time" even as his imaginative descriptions of Allen Ginsberg's exhortations as a third-base coach make one laugh uproariously. Larry Neumann's impersonation of the Dalai Lama sounds a bit too much like a character out of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, but his timing is impeccable.

It would be nice if the bottom half of an order were as strong as the top, but it's rarely the case. Batters five through nine are generally a hit-or-miss bunch: all-field-no-hit infielders, big-swing home-run-or-strikeout hitters, and flat-footed catchers. Eduardo Machado's Closet Games is a painfully banal TV-drama-style vignette about a quarreling gay couple, one of whom hates the macho rituals of baseball and the other who loves going to the games but hides his gay identity in order to do so. Little about this exchange is original or engaging. Similarly, despite a couple of chuckles, Wendy MacLeod's Division III is an underdeveloped, cliched comedy about the existential perspectives of three players on a lousy college baseball team.

Matters improve with Gary Leon Hill's The Real Cheese. This discussion at a ball game between a divorced father and his troubled son begins unpromisingly with generic parent-adolescent discomfort but turns into an intense portrait of teenage alienation, symbolized by the boy's mastery of baseball's sometimes puzzling language. Howard Korder's monologue Ted Williams keeps the late-inning drive alive with his signature snappy wit, masterfully performed by Marc Grapey as a cynical, divorced yuppie on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he confronts the titular baseball icon's decency, compassion, and perfection, which men can no longer even begin to approach. Rounding out the order is Y York's The Bottom of the Ninth, which explores the dugout fantasies of a ballplayer who'd rather sacrifice his teammates than his own shot at winning a batting title. More sketch than play, it's still good-natured and punchy enough to stifle any boo-birds in the crowd.

Score the whole evening up in the victory column. True, batting about five and a half for nine is not the optimum ratio in theater, but in baseball it's almost unheard of. Especially these days, when our expectations of the game are quite a bit lower.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from "Hitting For The Cycle: Nine Short Plays About Baseball.

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