With the founding of the new Red Moon Theatre Joint, actor Rus Blackwell must own the distinction of having started more dramatic companies than anybody else in greater Orlando. But trying to divine the exact number is a useless enterprise, especially as it directly contradicts the message of Red Moon's inaugural offering, Rounding Third: There are more important things in life than keeping score.
It's a lesson that's been lost on Don (Blackwell), a suburban Little League coach who takes the game entirely too seriously. Having settled into a lifestyle that keeps him a comfortable three beers past the point of decorum, Don has no problem finding creative ways to convey the importance of winning to his pee-wee players (who remain unseen forces of ineptitude in this two-adult comedy). His take-no-prisoners approach causes instant friction with Michael (Mark Ferrera), an anal white-collar type just starting his first season as Don's assistant coach. As the two allow practice after practice to degenerate into petty squabbling, each man is in his own way fighting to set a good recreation-time example for the impressionable tykes whom they not-so-secretly fear "would rather be in Brigadoon anyway."
In lesser hands, Richard Dresser's comedy (which was still playing off-Broadway as its Orlando run began) could be a study in amiable predictability. We learn pretty quickly that Don is a more sensitive, tortured soul than his unforgiving exterior suggests, and that Michael has compelling reasons for wanting his own kid to excel on the team. No surprises there. Yet there's a stealthy sophistication to the play, a balance of sports-bar populism and smart dark comedy it takes performers as incisive as Blackwell and Ferrera (guided smoothly by director Trudy Bruner) to draw out. Blackwell's ability to invest pathos in proletarian boors is a matter of record, and the purse-lipped composure Ferrera brings to his character's telegram-brief bursts of dialogue proves that he's about the best deadpan man in town.
Their acting abilities become crucial in Act Two, in which the play is revealed as more than a mere summer frolic. Rounding Third, we come to realize, isn't a story about baseball per se, but the more general subject of male humiliation how the pressure to perform on the playing field of public expectation crushes the spirits of boys and men alike. It's hardly a dilemma exclusive to athletics; even the title, a seeming infield no-brainer, can be read as a metaphor for reaching a certain turning point in one's adult life. With a final flourish of dramatic simile, the Red Moon production of Dresser's work suggests that handing grown-up disappointment of any kind is a lot like taking a bouncing grounder to the shin: You just shake it off and get back out there. Nice game, everybody.