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The Mound Builders

Photo by Kevin O’ Sullivan

Baseball may no longer be our national pastime, but the sport still enslaves many a male psyche, taunting us with boyhood memories of interracial camaraderie, the smells of dirt and grass, and our earliest appreciation of that exact moment when twilight fades into dusk. Baseball’s moderate physical requirements also drug the average Joe with the possibilities of becoming Joe DiMaggio. I know someone whose entire adolescence was sustained by the unshakable belief that one day he would play professional ball — even though he stopped playing the game at age 15. Throughout high school, it seems, he still assumed that some omniscient scout, who had no doubt heard of my friend’s sandlot exploits, or the stories about his incredible baseball-card collection, would one day appear and sign him straight into the major leagues.

It is this fantasy of summons that gives baseball its narcotic power and makes some of its partisans less fans than believers. This also explains why almost every nonbiographical play or film, from Damn Yankees! to For Love of the Game, involves a middle-aged man trying to rendezvous with his vanished youth. In The Noon of Games, Hank Bunker’s new play produced by Oxblood at Glaxa Studios, a graying film-studio exec named Don Drysdale (Mickey Swenson) also finds himself the subject of such a metaphorical summons, issued by as improbable a figure as that baseball scout from my friend’s teenage imagination.

The story begins with Drysdale and girlfriend Mo (Shannon Holt) quarreling over Don’s diary, which Mo has discovered. The classic conflict for these predicaments ensues: She’s appalled by the diary’s declarations of lust for a co-worker, he’s outraged that his private journal has been violated. The scene flaunts a gaudily absurd tone, since, as the couple are about to leave their home for a New Year’s Eve party, Don’s dressed in a Dodgers jersey and biker shorts, while willowy Mo sports a jeweled halter top and clingy skirt.

Bickering aside, the pair are gripped by the stoic front-lawn vigil of enigmatic Carlton (Peter Konerko), a proofreader from the story department that Don heads. Other characters appear. There’s Mo’s ex, Gibson (Tony Forkush), the third man of the play named for a famous pitcher; not only is Gibson still legally married to Mo, but he’s also a paroled ex-con (he’s wearing an ankle monitor that will cause him some grief) who works with Drysdale. A ricochet of venomous banter between Gibson and Mo is followed by the arrival of her Uncle Frank, the kind of imposing but tactless movie producer you might find cruising the TGIFs from Marina del Rey to Torrance.

Uncle Frank may or may not have killed his father; nevertheless, he definitely harbors a murderous disdain for Gibson, whom he beats and mutilates. But even this cynical macher is mightily impressed by Carlton, whom, once invited inside, Frank anoints as his new story-department head — replacing Drysdale. The bearded, soft-spoken Carlton is more saintly than messianic, wearing his hair long and flowing while attiring himself in an old-fashioned flannel baseball uniform. Carlton represents different hopes for different folks: a new lover for Mo, a whiz kid for Frank’s studio and, more miraculously, the chance for Drysdale to recapture the ideal of youth through Carlton’s idea to create a “pan-departmental team” of ballplayers.

Although the play deals peripherally with Hollywood and power relationships, its poetic center is Drysdale’s eagerness to trade the satisfactions of middle age for the thirsts of youth. It’s no easy exchange, though, as much of the dialogue discusses — at times seems to melt into — a kind of voodoo screenplay about Drysdale’s life, one that clearly will determine Drysdale’s real existence. Simply put, Frank favors an unhappy ending, while Carlton holds out for something a little more redemptive of this would-be pitcher. “You must revive the American screenplay,” Drysdale tells Carlton, because “There are no more stories and characters.”

The Noon of Games reworks the old story of a man summoned from grayness to greatness with a refreshing originality and is ably directed by the playwright. (His title is derived from a line of poet Donald Hall’s Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, a biography of the LSD-dropping pitcher.) Bunker’s cast creates some striking characterizations, none more so than Holt’s deranged–Deborah Kerr performance as an heiress on the prowl for excitement. Here at least, contrary to Drysdale’s gloomy prognosis, there really are more characters — all that’s lacking is a story.

Funny yet emotionally aloof, the play is basically 80 minutes of droll prologue to a denouement that never comes. What’s needed isn’t necessarily a narrative “payoff” (some storm-followed-by-sunrise ending) — merely the sense of momentum created by decisions. We are given a situation that repeats itself in moment after moment, but never come to a higher understanding of the characters. To let us participate in something so fundamental as this is hardly pandering to vulgar audience expectations; it is such discoveries, after all, that give us a reason for being an audience and to experience, so to speak, that precise moment when twilight fades into night. Without it, this play’s contest of wills inevitably pivots toward the tedium of a long, scoreless game, rather than the passionate noon of games that is baseball — and theater.

THE NOON OF GAMES | Written and directed by HANK BUNKER | Presented by OXBLOOD at GLAXA STUDIOS, 3707 Sunset Blvd. | Through August 19

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