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On the Ball

Date: Dec 08, 2008


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Folks at the Manhattan Theatre Club might consider posting a notice outside the theatre door at performances of Itamar Moses' Back Back Back, something along the lines of: "Prior knowledge of baseball not required to enjoy this show."

For proof, they need look no further than the play's director, Daniel Aukin, a former Brit who barely followed cricket in his homeland, let alone the "favorite pastime" of his adopted country. If the guy directing this three-character comedy/drama about baseball's steroids scandal doesn't know the sport intimately, it must be comprehensible to the average theatregoer, no?

"I'm not an obvious candidate for a play about baseball," admits Aukin, a former North Londoner who grew up in a theatrical family but didn't work in the field until his collegiate days in the U.S., and who has stayed ever since. "Even cricket, which is not as required as soccer is over there, is an acquired taste. I had no real interest in it until I was about 11 or 12. I had the same experience with baseball over here—you're exposed to it in dribs and drabs, and then one day you sort of get it—you understand the rhythm."

Indeed, though he did a fair amount of preparation and research, Aukin echoes the common view that "ideally, you do a certain amount of preparation, and then you can just let it go and not think about it that much, so that your focus is dealing with what's happening between these two human beings onstage."

Indeed, though there's plenty of sports jargon thrown around the stage, steroids are never mentioned by name in Back Back Back; one character refers at one point to his "pregame vitamins." Other things not mentioned in the play are the actual teams and players reflected in the play's action.

"It's true, the play exists in an interesting place between documentary and made-up," Aukin concedes. "We knew that no matter what we did, people would think it was about certain players."

Yes, there is a stubborn, outspoken Latino ballplayer named Raul, who writes a book defending his steroid use—kind of like Jose Canseco. There is a soft-spoken home-run hitter with sideburns who says he's going to tell Congressional investigators he's "not here to talk about the past"—just like Mark McGwire. But there is a disclaimer in the program saying the show is not based on real people or incidents, and as Aukin says, the play would not be very interesting—to him, at least—if it didn't express a larger truth.

"My feeling was that the strength of the play is that it would work for somebody with zero knowledge of baseball," says Aukin, who is best known in New York as the visionary artistic director of Off-Broadway's SoHo Rep, which he led from 1999 through 2006. "Supporting the play, and standing it up on those terms, was most of my focus. Attempting to get to a truth in how people behave is was hard enough; we had no concern with trying to be like any existing real players."

If there's another kind of play that Back Back Back is like, it may in the showbiz genre.

"I've been describing it as a backstage drama—I think that's a helpful way for us to think of it," Aukin says. "It's what happens when these stars are offstage." Throughout the play, an LED screen lists the dates of each of the nine scenes (like innings, see?). "In some small way," Aukin explains, "the use of the LED sign had a resonance with the show-business aspect of their activity."

In the television age, though, sports have gone beyond show business and become Big Business.

"There are vast, vast sums of money involved," Aukin says. "When that kind of money is involved, the kinds of choices that the characters in this play are faced with become pretty much inevitable. Is baseball a shade closer to pro wrestling than it was 30 years ago? I think it is."

It wasn't always thus, on either side of the pond.

"It wasn't so long ago that cricket was mostly played by amateurs," Aukin explains. "Most of the English national players used to have off-season jobs. But it creates a very different culture around the game when it becomes professional."

This is a theme that reverberates beyond the worlds of entertainment and sports, of course.

"The play resonates with some of the values this country has been struggling with for the past 20 years," Aukin says. "I remember this quote from Bush from early in his administration, in which he said, 'I'm here to play long ball. I want to hit home runs.' "

Steroids work by reducing muscle recovery time, so that athletes can keep relentlessly building up the same muscles, while non-steroid users must give them a rest. It's no pain, all gain.

"The idea of taking a risk with no cost is laid very clearly throughout the play," Aukin points out.

Aukin considers himself "half-American," though he grew up in England.

"I grew up in a theatre family, but I didn't actually make any there. I had to go really far away from my parents to do what they do."

Clearly, theatre's in his blood—no additives required.

Click here for more information about Back Back Back.