One issue that doesn't get in the way of watching Sean Michael Rice's "Rounds" at the Cast Theatre is whether or not a white playwright like Rice should write about black characters and black concerns. Of course he should, especially if he has something fresh to say. "Rounds," alas, is fairly stale stuff.
To be sure, Rice's instinct for balance in tone and attitude, to give all four of his men a fair shake, is the sign of a humane mind--too often an endangered species on today's stage. The great dramas, from "Julius Caesar" to "All My Sons," show that every character, no matter how nasty, has a point. Listen up, says the playwright, this may be you someday.
But as we listen to Rice's working-class buddies, over at Free's pad (G. Smokey Campbell) for a big Friday night boxing match on the tube, it gradually dawns on us that they're neither the objects of any special kind of insight nor insightful themselves. Rather, they're marionettes in a seriocomic scheme that dictates that for every grim moment, there must be a funny one.
So, when Lenny (Haskell V. Anderson III) threatens Winston (Rif Hutton) with a baseball bat at the first-act curtain, Rice immediately squelches the fight in Act II and has Cecil (Tyrone Granderson Jones) launch into a rap tune. Emotionally and theatrically, it's phony.
If this happened only once, it could be ignored as a momentary flaw. It's the repeating of this motif (a motif enshrined in television writing) that not only grates against the sensibilities, but cheats the characters of their real identities.
This shouldn't happen, since the four men are fairly easy to spot on a psychic compass. Free, recently separated, has left the factory for his own plumbing business. Over at the plant, though, tempers are flaring over an imminent strike. Winston is loudly for it, dimwitted Cecil isn't sure but he kind of sees Winston's side of things, and Lenny--whose coat and tie suggest that he's inching up into management--is willing to take a pay cut. They also range from emotionally brittle (Lenny) to strong (Winston). When it comes to group dynamics, Rice is a neat-minded playwright.
Life, though, isn't neat; perhaps reality dictates that Lenny not accede to the (very legitimate) pressure to strike. If he stonewalled, all the way to the end, that would be interesting. But, typical of this play, a dramaturgical conceit like a happy ending demands that he join in a four-handed clasp of brotherhood. "Rounds" skirts, then bypasses the pain felt by today's black man, and opts for "entertainment." It doesn't earn its bright conclusion.
Campbell, Anderson, Hutton and Jones manage to impose some dint of personality on these near-stereotypes (only out-of-it Cecil sounds like somebody we might not have heard on a stage before), and are especially right when they get into the boxing match. For men like this, maybe the only passion left is what comes out of the tube.
Director John DiFusco, whose "Tracers" was another display of desperate men in conflict, shows his characteristically musical way with pacing, but cannot lift this material out of the trite. The mostly jazz music (Philly Jo Jones, Herbie Hancock, Oliver Lake) lends shading, which is then marred by Rice's accompanying dialogue. Steven T. Howell's set looks thrown together at the last minute.
Performances at 800 N. El Centro Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Ends March 22 ((213) 462-0265).