“How many times do I have to tell you? The last words of the national anthem are not ‘play ball!’” Paul Bestock

Back during the Tailhook scandal, when more than 100 military pilots were investigated for sexually assaulting around 90 people (most of them women) at a 1991 event in Las Vegas, one strain of apologia went like this: "You can't train people to be highly competitive, ruthless killers and also expect them to be polite and well-behaved. People just don't work that way." That rationale is flawed, of course—no citizen is above the law—but it's the tension at the heart of Back Back Back, a 2008 drama by Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig, Boardwalk Empire) now playing at Seattle Public Theatre.

On its surface, the play is about three professional baseball players and the issues that define their relationships over the years: fame, the politics of pro sports, and, especially, steroids. But deep inside, Back Back Back asks how far you can push people to be the best of the best, how much money and attention you can lavish on them, before they start believing their own hype, thinking they're supermen, and crossing the lines into seriously bad behavior.

The three-person cast knocks it out of the park, so to speak. Raul (Ray Gonzalez) is a cocky and talented jerk who pioneers the use of steroids to out-train and out-perform his fellow ballplayers. Kent (Patrick Allcorn) is slightly less cocky and slightly more talented, but he follows Raul down his road to perdition. By contrast, Adam (Trick Danneker) is an earnest kid who, because he keeps away from the drugs, has a less spectacular career but a cleaner conscience.

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The three cross paths over the years in locker rooms and on the sidelines, and Moses captures that guy's-guy rapport that seems easygoing and jokey but can quickly turn vicious. Raul and Kent tower over Adam physically and rhetorically, competing with each other to be the biggest bulldog in the junkyard, never realizing that Adam is quietly their superior in the ways that really count. They're all likable and repellent by turns—which is to say they're fully realized characters—and director Kelly Kitchens has coaxed excellent performances out of all three, whose locker-room banter has all the comedy and drama of the real thing.

Structured as nine short "innings" (with a scoreboard upstage that keeps track) Back Back Back isn't a revelation, but it's a satisfying, all-American diversion. Just like baseball. recommended