Thursday, November 20, 2008

Back Back Back


By Itamar Moses. Dir. Daniel Aukin. Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II. (CLOSED)

While the first batch of reviews suggested that Itamar Moses' new play about the steroid scandal that plagued America's favorite pastime was a walk at best, if not a total strikeout (its first grade was a B-), there's been a fairly steady stream of reviews since with little but praise for its form and incisive wit, and for Daniel Aukin's sleek, subtext-heavy direction. Those who were left cold cited its distancing insider lingo, among other faults, but its supporters--many of them admitted non-sports fans--say they had no trouble following the play, and besides, it's not just a baseball play, anyway. BONUS POINT: to Daily News for sending Steve Kettman, a sportswriter who ghost-wrote Jose Canseco's notorious Juiced, to pen his own take on the play (which, if we had graded it, it looks like it would have been an A).

Time Out NY A
(Rob Weinert-Kendt) Moses’s taut, beautifully modulated three-hander about steroid use among pro baseballers, feels like a homecoming...The play’s brief against steroids slow-cooks from the 1984 Olympics to the 2005 congressional hearings. Outrage eventually emerges—like every other telling emotion in Back Back Back—with the bewildering force of a curveball pitch. Daniel Aukin’s direction, clean as a line drive, accentuates what feels like a fresh insight from Moses: the razor’s edge between the confidence to keep quiet and the terrible loneliness of not knowing what to say.

Wall Street Journal A
(Terry Teachout)I am delighted to report that it is a very superior piece of work, one of the best new American plays to come my way in 2008... Back Back Back never feels like a docudrama, much less a polemic. Instead Mr. Moses has given us a taut, touchingly elegiac study of friendship and betrayal, one whose three characters (all perfectly played by Jeremy Davidson, James Martinez and Michael Mosley) are creatures of flesh and blood, not historical sock puppets.

(David Cote) Besides the sheer fun of hearing these guys banter and trash talk, there is an undertow of melancholy to Itamar Moses' pitch-perfect script...Steroid use for these guys is a way to avoid the messy complexities of life, to keep chasing that fly ball. This spare production is tightly staged by Daniel Aukin, who ran downtown's SoHo Rep Theater in the 1990s. Not only is it great to see Manhattan Theatre Club continuing to support a canny young writer such as Moses, but hiring a director with his own stylish spin on the ball.

New Yorker A
A nine-inning drama about professional baseball players who risk their reputations and that of the national pastime by doing steroids sounds like a strikeout but is, in fact, a hit. Spare, fast-paced, entertaining, and superbly acted, Itamar Moses’s new play takes place between 1984 and 2005. Two athletes at the top of their games (Jeremy Davidson and James Martinez) are American heroes, but that’s not enough—they want to be physical supermen, and they don’t mind cheating to get there. Things get more complicated when an innocent young rookie (Michael Mosley), playing only for the love of the game, invites himself into their inner circle. Well directed by Daniel Aukin.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) In each of his works -- including Bach at Leipzig and The Four of Us -- Moses' great subject is ambition and how it wrecks men's friendships. What's remarkable is how he manages to reframe this conflict in fresh and dramatically engaging ways...Under Daniel Aukin's taut direction, each scene crackles us with unexpressed feelings and accusations, forcing you to constantly re-examine your assumptions about Moses' characters as the hard truths and betrayals start to pile up.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) Even the least sport-savvy of theatergoers should have fun, in a wistful way, filling in the names in this engrossing and deftly written 100-minute play about three players and chemical enhancements, from 1984 to the congressional hearings in 2005...Moses writes enormously watchable, unpredictable and unpretentiously serious comedies about guys in crises with their own egos and ethics...In Daniel Aukin's small but imaginative production, the stories of injuries, trades and relationships unfold with lively thoughtfulness.

Talkin' Broadway B+
(Matthew Murray) A thoughtful and accomplished dissection of the drive to achieve as viewed through the lens of Major League Baseball's ongoing steroid scandal, though it's sometimes hard to hear to because of all the eggshells it walks on...Moses's best-yet work in New York, Back Back Back sheds the gimmicky artifice of the playwright's 2005 Bach at Leipzig and last season's The Four of Us in favor of a reality-based rumination on the prices we pay for taking the easy way out—and the prices we pay for not. Directed by Daniel Aukin as a taut and trembling but unbiased bio, it even manages to make this well-worn subject relevant again.

Associated Press B+
(Jennifer Farrar) Clubhouse ambiance is nicely indicated by David Zinn's spare set and simple costumes, aided by David Weiner's lighting...This dark play is primarily a riveting spectacle of idolized figures who taint their sport through their own pride and greed.

CurtainUp B+
(Elyse Sommer) Like Itamar Moses two previous plays, Back Back Back is entertaining and involving, with dialogue that...sparkles with quick wit. However, despite its beneath the surface subtext, this is ultimately less a memorably major league play than one memorably performed by Jeremy Davidson, James Martinez and Michael Mosley; and effectively staged by Daniel Aukin, the former artistic director of Soho Rep.

Theatermania B+
(Patrick Lee) An intimate, well-observed take on baseball's recent steroid scandal, credibly depicting an increasingly paranoid environment where teammate distrusts teammate...Daniel Aukin's direction avoids a heavy moral hand in presenting the characters and guides the actors to fine, effective performances. What could have been a lecture in lesser hands instead becomes a compelling work of theater thanks to Moses, Aukin, and the cast.

Variety B
(Sam Thielman) Although Moses tries for (and fails at) a lot of pseudo-intellectual dazzle about tradition, history and morality, his real interest is the bounds of friendship, and that's where his play shines.

AM New York C+
(Matt Windman) Though it takes on some admittedly juicy current events, Back Back Back remains too undeveloped and devoid of action. The characters essentially remain mouthpieces to frame a debate about competition, loyalty and ethics. David Aikin [sic] stages the play with careful ease, allowing all three actors to shine with effective performances. But as far as baseball lingo goes, Back Back Back is not a homerun, but not exactly a strikeout either. Let’s call it a bunt.

The New York Times C
(Charles Isherwood) Back Back Back, a new play by Itamar Moses about baseball’s steroids scandal, could actually use a little juicing itself. Mr. Moses’ disappointingly drama-free drama does little more than skim the surface...Despite effective performances from all three actors, the play’s characters never come across as fully imagined people but as off-the-rack exemplars of various attitudes toward the use of juice.

NY Post C
(Frank Scheck) While the subject's rife with dramatic potential, Moses' talky drama is largely inconsequential, featuring copious amounts of aimless dialogue and a plotline that doesn't successfully cohere...Director Daniel Aukin draws fine performances from his hard-bodied cast. But for a play about steroids, Back Back Back contains surprisingly little juice.

Backstage C-
(David R. Rosenberg) More bunt than home run. The first half of Itamar Moses' play about a true-life scandal might as well be written in code. When he gets to the second half, however, Moses' instinct for portraying individuals instead of generalizations kicks in and the evening takes flight. But the damage has been done, and this insider look at players who take steroids before publicly regretting their use and then ratting on their teammates is a fitful enterprise.

The Daily News D
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Although the Manhattan Theatre Club production is smoothly staged by Daniel Aukin and cleanly performed by actors who convince as athletes, the story isn’t all that illuminating and too often is documentary-dry.

Time Out NY A 13; Wall St. Journal A 13; NY1 A 13; L&SA A 13; New Yorker A 13; Newsday A 13; Talkin' Broadway B+ 11; CurtainUp B+ 11; AP B+ 11; Theatermania B+ 11; Variety B 10; AM New York C+ 8; The New York Times C 7; NY Post C 7; Backstage C- 6; The Daily News D 4; TOTAL: 164 / 15 = 10.93 (B+)

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