Steroid scandal rocks Itamar Moses’ baseball drama

By Jennifer Farrar

NEW YORK – A baseball drama might reasonably be expected to be about playing the game. But we barely get taken out to the ball game at all in “Back Back Back,” the new off-Broadway play by Itamar Moses.

Instead, Moses focuses on the turmoil surrounding the steroid scandals that have rocked America’s favorite pastime since the 1980s. Moses personalizes information from more than two decades of sports headlines, creating snippets of news conferences and increasingly paranoid off-the-field interactions among three successful baseball players.

Daniel Aukin directs the nine scenes, many in an all-purpose locker room where not much changes except the uniform colors. Conversations among the men begin as clubhouse banter, but soon focus on the “vitamins” some players are said to be using. Self-delusion, finger-pointing and resentment eventually pervade their meetings.

Nice-guy and “golden boy” Kent, genially played by Jeremy Davidson, is a talented major-league player with several years in the game when we meet him. He started using steroids to remain competitive. Although he knows it is illegal and could be harmful to his health, he wants the stature and money that come with being a star. His greatest fear is being replaced by the next talented rookie coming up behind him.

One such rookie, Adam, is aptly portrayed by Michael Mosley. He and Kent share a genuine love for baseball that each uses to shore up his eventual decision whether to “juice” or not.

Mosley holds an old-fashioned, higher standard of behavior, even as he questions why his idols, such as Kent, would do anything illegal to spoil their beloved sport.

Their teammate, the volatile, bullying Raul is energetically portrayed by James Martinez, who creates tension onstage with almost everything his character says and does. With defiant bravado, Raul makes his position clear on steroids right from the beginning, claiming he brought a “system” to the big league from his time in the minors. He tells Kent that anyone in baseball who doesn’t use steroids to remain competitive is “stupid.”

Though he’s soon demoted back to the minors, where he bounces around for many years, Raul always defends his steroid system to Kent in private, and considers everyone in baseball to be hypocrites for not acknowledging how well it works.

All three men experience the rise and fall of fame over the years. Paranoia and pressure prevail throughout, as everyone is eventually ensnared by the federal government’s long investigation into who did what, who knew what, who is a snitch and who is lying about it – which is practically everybody, including management, according to these players.

Clubhouse ambiance is nicely indicated by David Zinn’s spare set and simple costumes, aided by David Weiner’s lighting. We get an occasional crack of bat on ball, or the roar of a stadium crowd, from the sound design by Ryan Rumery and Daniel Baker.

Moses tosses out a little bit of hope at the very end, when the action finally moves to a baseball diamond, but this dark play is primarily a riveting spectacle of idolized figures who taint their sport through their own pride and greed.

“Back Back Back” is at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage II through Jan. 4.