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'Rounding Third' is no little league play

July 26, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Three of playwright Richard Dresser's works have been presented in previous Contemporary American Theater Festival seasons in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

A fourth - "Rounding Third" - will have a special staged reading Friday and Saturday at Shepherd College's Reynolds Hall.

The two-character play, which will premiere at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill., in October, will star George Wendt - known to millions as Norm Peterson on "Cheers" - and Matthew Arkin, Drama Desk award nominee for his performance in the Pulitzer-Prize winning off-Broadway play "Dinner With Friends."

Wendt will play Don, the Little League coach he describes as a Type-A winner, a perennial league champion whose son is the star pitcher.

Arkin will portray Michael, a wide-eyed newcomer who just wants the kids to have fun.

"It's very funny. It's got a lot of heart, a lot of pain," says Wendt. "Pain and comedy are not mutually exclusive," he points out.

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The Northlight production will be directed by B.J. Jones, the theater's artistic director, and he'll be in Shepherdstown for the readings as well. "This is my baby," he says of the play he first read last fall in Atlanta, where he was directing a production of Dresser's "Below the Belt," a play presented at the 1997 CATF.

Jones, also an actor, took the role of Don during the play's first reading. He recruited Wendt for a reading in New York last January, and CATF Founder and Producing Director Ed Herendeen was there. Dresser had called him.

"Who would miss that?" Herendeen says.

The production will be a bit of a reunion for Herendeen and Wendt, who know each other from work at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts in the late 1980s. Their kids played together, Wendt sometimes picking up Herendeen's kids in his van. Working at the festival together was like being in the army, Wendt says, adding that he's being "very facetious."

"You bond," he explains.

Dresser calls his two-character piece "kind of a delicate animal."

He's loved baseball his whole life. When his family lived in Los Angeles, his son, Sam, now 11, came home from baseball practice and told his dad about his coach's new "strategy" for the playoffs.

He'd give a signal to the base runner, and when the batter batted and the runner slid into second base, he was to pretend he was hurt so the batter could get safely on base.

"I went crazy," Dresser says. "That's not strategy - that's cheating!"

Even people who don't care about baseball can relate to the play, Dresser says.

"These guys are not that far from us," says Arkin, whose son, Sam, 4, has not yet experienced Little League. "I like plays that explore the depth of ordinary people."

This play deals with familiar experiences.

Jones says the script outline sounds like a Hollywood pitch meeting. "But it feels archetypal because so many of us are living it," he says.

There's a certain agreed-upon convention with regard to what Little League really is, Jones says.

"Fathers and sons need another method of communication to say I love you without saying it," he explains.

Little League is an opportunity for a dad to be there for his kid for nine "certified-no-foolin'-around innings," Jones says.

"It's the least you can do - and the most you can do," Jones says.

Why do we get so insane on the sidelines? Jones asks.

"Because it's your kid," he answers. You want him to be more than you were. You want to give him the gift of hope for success and a better life.

"That's a lot riding on nine innings," Jones says.

"Rounding Third" is being read in Shepherdstown because CATF is committed and interested in Richard Dresser's playwriting, Herendeen says.

Part of the festival's mission is to develop new plays. For the CATF audience to be part of the birth of a play in its early stages is a "little something special," he adds.

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