There may be a powerful play to emerge from the drug scandals that have rocked and tarnished pro baseball (and other sports) over the past two decades.
But "Back Back Back" by Itamar Moses is more a walk than a home run.
Now in its local debut at Seattle Public Theater, this serio-comedy about the various maladies plaguing America's favorite pastime tosses hardball questions about the pressures on athletes to succeed at any cost -- even if it means lying, cheating and besmirching the game they love. But the follow-through is disappointingly lackluster.
The laissez-faire ethics of baseball are examined via the intersecting careers of three typecast big league players. We meet them in various team clubhouses starting in the 1980s. Kent (Patrick Allcorn), a rising superstar, is an ingratiating, seemingly straight-arrow hero aiming for the Hall of Fame. His teammate Raul (Ray Gonzalez) is a top slugger too, but brash, abrasive and, well, a drug pusher. As the two men work out, they also lob advice to a nervous, naive rookie, Adam (Trick Danneker).
It will be obvious to baseball fans that Kent is patterned on Mark McGwire, who made a similar devil's bargain to bulk up on drugs. Raul is clearly a surrogate for McGwire's cocky Oakland A's teammate Jose Canseco, tagged by one sports writer as "the most conspicuous example of a player who has made himself great with steroids."
As it follows the athletes from trade to trade, team to team, and glory to scandal, "Back Back Back" tips its cap to the bitter 1994-95 baseball strike and the strain that sports puts on family life.
Moses covers the obvious bases, but the play's simplistic characters and short, choppy scenes (cleverly divided into nine innings on a scoreboard overhead) whip up little dramatic energy. There aren't enough curve balls: We can see where it's headed from the first pitch. Even a confrontation between ex-colleagues called to testify before a congressional committee probing baseball's drug scandal feels humdrum.
Solid actors, under the direction of Kelly Kitchens, endeavor to punch up notes of tension and humor in the dialogue. And buff Allcorn and husky Gonzalez are in telling physical contrast to lean and wiry Danneker.
Allcorn does radiate the guilt of an ambitious man keenly aware he's violating his own moral code. Gonzalez has the harder task of making us connect with the monotonal Raul, whose coarse, idiotic remarks pin him as a villainous buffoon. Danneker exudes a quiet dignity in an underwritten role.
If you too love baseball, despite its sins, you won't find in "Back Back Back" the bullpen ambience of Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out" or the classic musical "Damn Yankees" (opening soon at 5th Avenue Theatre), both of which swing harder for the fences.
But there is a resonant metaphor up at bat here. In his book "The Cheating Culture," David Callahan notes, "As the prizes for the winners have increased, people have become more willing to do whatever it takes to be a winner." He's not just talking about sports -- but also Wall Street, politics and other realms where it's dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all.
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