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Winner Take All: Little League coaches Charles Dean and Remi Sandri take different approaches to the game in 'Rounding Third.'

Leading 'League'

San Jose Rep scores with two-coach Little League drama 'Rounding Third'

By Marianne Messina

IN Rounding Third, San Jose Repertory Theatre's current Odd Couple of Little League baseball, touchy-feely, cell-phone-tethered assistant coach Mike (Remi Sandri) teams up with coach Dan (Charles Dean), a girl-watching (actually Little League mom-watching) man's man. Dan ("In the real world, everything's hard") tells the kids they have to win; Mike ("I prefer to be called Michael") tells them they should be having fun. We can only imagine the yo-yoing of the kids' psyches trying to field this switch-hitting advice.

The fact that the kids are imaginary leaves some dead air space in this two-character production, only occasionally filled by the much-welcomed sound effects of kids at play. When Dan steps downstage to give his pep talk to the theater house, making the audience the kids, he gives us Little League coaching that's all about adults. And throughout the play, we see the two adults revisiting their own life lessons through their youngsters' activities, even as they manage to stay isolated from the kids' crises and inner worlds.

Functionally speaking, the device of two coaches talking to invisible kids (more than one appears to be ubiquitous) sacrifices some of the excitement needed to set up Michael/Mike's conversion at the end of the play: "I have a confession to make. I really want to win." The production recognizes this effect, reintroducing the excitement by way of nostalgia. Director John McCluggage, with the help of set designer Scott Weldin and lighting designer Rick Paulsen, curtains off each act with a hero's wall of backlit photos from memorable baseball moments. As live recordings echo through the theater, the corresponding images light up--which is not exactly to the point but does get the adrenaline going.

Embedding the heroic import of baseball's grand tradition into a somewhat myopic story raises the stakes. It helps the audience feel Mike's dire urgency when he connects "Dear God, let him catch this ball" with "Last year, I asked you to let my wife live. I need to feel hope. I want to feel there's some meaning to the dropped ball."

The chemistry between Sandri's Mike and Dean's Dan couldn't have been better. Dan: "Have you ever read the rule book?" Mike: "No." Dan: "It might get in the way of your half-assed opinions." Dean plays a confident and seasoned coach without relying on the stereotypical bluster. His assuredness is simply so second nature it leaves no room for doubt. As much as playwright Richard Dresser was appalled by the "strategy"/"cheating" of the real-life Little League coach who inspired the character, Dan is ultimately the one who keeps close, insightful notes on the players and who notices the type of kid heroism valiance that often flies under adult radar. Meanwhile, Sandri's Michael makes you want to wring his pseudoegalitarian neck even as you sympathize with his soft-spoken jock wannabe and his knobby knees in shorts (against Dan's all-purpose jeans--good choice by costume designer B Modern). Rounding Third may not be a heavy hitter, but the dialogue between these two keeps the bases loaded with good humor.

'Rounding Third,' a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm, with an extra show April 7 at noon (and no late show April 18) through April 18 at the San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $18-$52. (408.367.7255)

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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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