Before Buddy Valastro took over the Food Network, Hoboken used to be known to the masses for two things – Frank Sinatra and baseball. And while Ol’ Blue Eyes famously detested his hometown, baseball has always remained an integral part of Hoboken’s history, and few institutions have done as much to remind us of our past than Mile Square Theater.
On Friday, the theater group premiered its 11th Annual “7th Inning Stretch,” an evening of 10-minute plays that focus on baseball not only as a sport and pastime, but as a medium through which playwrights can explore the deepest aspects of human emotion.
“We understand that theater and baseball, on paper, may not seem like cousins, but in the best sporting contexts, there is a great deal of drama,” said Neil LaBute, an award-winning playwright who will be one of seven writers featured in this year’s program. “I’ve heard of lots of people in theater using sports metaphors. I think there’s closer ties than people realize.”
“7th Inning Stretch” will stage performances Saturday evening at 7 p.m. and Sunday evening at 3 p.m. at the Mile Square Theater, located on the second floor of 720 Monroe St. In addition to LaBute, the show will feature work by Brooke Berman, Eric Conger, Edith Freni, Jay Koepke, Jon Marans, and Mat Smart.
LaBute’s play, “Squeeze Play,” tells the story of a mother who attempts to convince a Little League coach to give her not-particularly-talented son some more playing time. LaBute said that in writing the play, he wanted to gauge the more human side of the game.
“I didn’t want to simulate baseball onstage, but sort of figure out the underlying drama,” he said. “Theres bigger themes about sportsmanship and courage and luck and all those things that you see in regular stories about people.”
A Hoboken tradition
According to Chris O’Connor, the founder of Mile Square Theater and the company’s artistic director, when he and his colleagues decided to start the “7th Inning Stretch” 11 years ago, they took a chance on calling it an annual event. But they did so anyway, on a hunch that it could develop into something special in a town where baseball plays such a crucial role in local history.
“We had a conversation about doing something with a Hoboken-related theme, and the baseball theme rose to the top of the list,” said O’Connor. “Baseball has this universality to it, a longevity that has affected lots of people who have lots of stories.”
Each year, O’Connor and other members of the Mile Square Theater get together and invite seven playwrights – six professionals and one Master of Fine Arts students from Rutgers University – to write a play for the show. No prior knowledge of baseball is required, which O’Connor said makes some of the entries particularly poignant.
“There is a great deal of drama in baseball.” – Playwright Neil LaBute
He called LaBute’s “Squeeze Play” a piece “filled with tension and an emotional tug of war,” further emphasizing the human side of baseball.
Berman’s play, “A Learning Curve,” tells the story of a couple at a turning point in their relationship, when the man, an avid baseball fan, has asked the woman to learn about baseball, and she has asked him for something in return.
“It’s a comedy of manners in a way. They’re talking about baseball but they’re really talking about their relationship,” she said. “It’s really about who are we to each other and what are we prepared to give for each other.”
And Koepke’s play, “The Chief’s Last Day,” tells the story of Chief Noc-A-Homa, the old Atlanta Braves mascot who lived in a teepee in centerfield. Under growing allegations of racism, the Braves franchise relieved the chief of his duties in 1986. Koepke’s play tells the story of the day he was fired.
“I’m actually from Atlanta, and not really that into baseball, so I wanted to tell as story that was of human interest,” he said. “I was really fascinated by the accidental racism inherent in having that type of mascot.”
“7th Inning Stretch” is completely produced by volunteers, said O’Connor, who is directing LaBute’s play. The proceeds from the show will fund the company’s summer production of “Twelfth Night.”
“Twelfth Night,” which will be performed outside, will be a one-and-done show, but “7th Inning Stretch” is here to stay.
“I think Hoboken is a place that really embraces its history,” said O’Connor. “I don’t think anyone loses sight that we’re creating great theater but also celebrating a particularly proud piece of Hoboken history.”
DeanDeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.