It's always the bottom of the ninth in "Game On."
Dan Hoyle and Tony Taccone's new Silicon Valley comedy gives us behind-the-plate seats to a baseball bromance in meltdown. The ESPN-obsessed 90-minute comedy throws a lot of curveballs at us as it touches on everything from male bonding and global warming to predatory capitalism, but it's never quite as funny as it wants to be in this uneven world premiere at San Jose Repertory Theatre. Hoyle (best known as a solo performer) and Taccone (artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre) are two of the smartest writers out there and doubtless the scattershot play will continue to evolve, but right now "Game On" strikes out far more than it hits.
Director Rick Lombardo aptly captures the grit and swagger of two down-at-the-heel guys, Vinnie (Marco Barricelli) and Alvin (Craig Marker), who only come alive when bathed in the glow of a flat screen. Hiding out in the media room of a stylish Los Altos manse, the boys are out to land one of the big venture capital angels at a party. They want to pitch this all-powerful billionaire about their outlandish scheme for bugs as the new beef. With the climate collapsing and water scarce, protein may be more valuable than gold if our apocalyptic fears come true. If Vinnie and Alvin can put grasshopper spring rolls and mopane worm wraps on the menu they can write their own ticket to the C-suite.
Barricelli, co-artistic director of the newly-reinvigorated Santa Cruz Shakespeare, gives Vinnie a tinge of tragedy that nails the wistfulness of being a blue-collar guy in a stock-option world. Marker oozes slickness as the washed-out Wall Street type desperate to get back in the big money. But despite these two very engaging performances and some tart bits of wit about the insanity of the high-tech bubble, neither of these characters is compelling enough to give the play an emotional core. If we don't care about these guys, there's nothing to ground the play as the plot spins through one oddball gambit after another, from sabermetrics to eating insects.
Make no mistake, there is no lack of intelligence behind the narrative. The cult of the next big thing is certainly rooted in the reality of life in this tech mecca. Vinnie's mourning for the fate of the polar bear rings quite true, as does his desire to bury his depression in his love of sports. The need for denial is a profoundly powerful element of 21st-century life.
There is also a wonderfully funny spoof of an agit prop theater skit (performed by Cassidy Brown) involving a cape, a gun and whale song that is deeply demented. It comes out of left field to delight anyone who has ever sat through a well-intentioned but otherwise horrible bit of political theater.
However, "Game On" lacks a sense of identity at this point. Perhaps it's truly a play about the addiction to fantasy baseball, to being so juiced by the game that you watch Little League World Series reruns on TV for kicks. When the narrative ventures outside that arena, the action feels forced. Alvin's panic attacks and his revulsion about the depth of corporate greed just doesn't track. Also, while it is certainly plausible that two such dissimilar guys might connect over the game, there isn't enough BFF charisma here to explain why Alvin would let Vinnie in on his last chance at bat.
Lombardo also needs to increase the intensity in certain key scenes. The snarky exchanges with Bob (Mike Ryan), another investor, lack tension. There's also little change in electricity when the only woman in the play, an eco-socialite named Beth (Nisi Sturgis), walks into the room, and that's a pity.
Die-hard fans of the national pastime may well find major league laughs here, but for the rest of us, it's all inside baseball.
By Dan Hoyle and Tony Taccone, presented by San Jose Repertory Theatre
Through: April 19
Where: San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $29-$74, 408-367-7255, www.sjrep.com