At roughly the halfway point of Richard Dresser's two-man comedy Rounding Third - currently playing at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre - Michael (Jim Driscoll), a sweet-tempered assistant Little League coach, asks the team's boisterous head coach, Don (Fred Harris Jr.), if they might enjoy a moment of silence; Michael and Don have shared a continual, often exasperated dialogue over several weeks of team play, and Michael wonders if perhaps quiet would be preferable to jabber. "Oh no," says Don. "We don't know each other well enough to not talk."
One of the many joys of Dresser's play is that, by the last scene, the guys still don't know each other well enough to not talk, and the thrill of Playcrafters' production is that you couldn't be happier about that; the ingenious and frequently hysterical Rounding Third, well-directed by Craig Michaels, is never less than utterly delightful, and proves a sensational comic showcase for its leading actors. When I wasn't smiling, it was only because I was laughing out loud - and I laughed out loud a lot.
In its more obvious, less artful way, Rounding Third reveals the sorts of comic insights into the male psyche that propelled the movie Sideways. Dresser's salty play - which follows Don's and Michael's near-friendship through one Little League season - is canny about revealing its characters to be, like most men, little boys themselves; it smartly establishes the flippancy with which guys toss off conversational bombshells; and it's shrewdly aware of how childhood resentments can fester. (Harris has an acutely hilarious monologue detailing Don's memories of his own 11-4 Little League season, and how, years later, he exacted revenge on The One Who Cost Us the Game.)
Yet in the end, the script works because it's so damned funny. Dresser gets amazing mileage out of his running gags - references to fungos, the Macarena, Don's previous assistant coach, and the semantics of what constitutes a physical versus a mental error all pay off in unexpected ways - and he's wisely made both of his characters a little nuts; a two-person comedy always plays better when neither character is the straight man. Barring one side trip into a rather maudlin sentimentality, when Michael briefly steps out of the play's "real" universe to deliver a soliloquy, Rounding Third is sharp and funny throughout, and in Playcrafters' production, Dresser's work has been acted about as enjoyably as you could possibly want.
Speaking to his team, Don prepares for the season by telling them, "You'll work hard, learn a lot, and have fun," and the way Fred Harris Jr. delivers the line, your heart bleeds for these Little Leaguers; nothing in the world has ever sounded like less fun. Harris is devastatingly funny in Rounding Third. Don is so focused on winning that he makes game play a chore, and his frustration with these youths who just won't stop crying is mean-spirited in the best way. Yet the character is never a bastard. Don is often witheringly sarcastic, but the way Harris breaks up his lines - taking pauses throughout his longer tirades - Don's vitriol is softened by real-life rhythms, which allows the gags to sneak up on you.
Playing a far mousier character, Jim Driscoll is every bit Harris' equal. I adored the actor's touching, naturalistic irritability in New Ground Theatre's Promise Ring last autumn, but I wasn't prepared for how sweetly, inventively comedic Driscoll would be here. Eternally optimistic, his starry-eyed Michael is so naturally endearing that Driscoll gets laughs through his smile alone; the best physical gag in the production - when the men sit together in Don's van (a great piece of Gary Baker set design) and Michael finds himself trapped in an uncomfortable position - is made achingly funny through Driscoll's beaming, hey-I-don't-mind acceptance of it. Like Harris, Driscoll earns his laughs simply by staying in character; if Don and Michael were aware of how amusing they were, they wouldn't be.
With leads this sensational, it would be easy to overlook Rounding Third's stellar technical merits; Jennifer Kingry's clever lighting effects - I swear you can feel the clouds passing overhead - and Chandos Tillman's sound design aid to the show subtly but immeasurably, and Craig Michaels orchestrates the leads' conversation beautifully. But in the end, it's Harris' and Driscoll's show, and in Playcrafters' Rounding Third, audiences have the pleasure of witnessing an always-welcome theatrical marriage: a play that deserves terrific actors, and actors who deserve a terrific play.
Rounding Third plays at Moline's Barn Theatre through Sunday, March 19. For tickets, call (309)762-0330.