The Sweetest Swing in Baseball
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
The Sweetest Swing in Baseball may be a star vehicle but American playwright Rebecca Gilman's densely woven play, receiving its world premiere in London, is also far more. This is Miss Gilman's fourth play at the Royal Court and, once again, features a fascinating, insecure female protagonist.
Under the very cool and relaxed direction of Ian Rickson, it not only paints a portrait of a very unhappy woman but it also explores issues relating to the nature of success, coming to terms with oneself and the border between madness and sanity.
In Hildegard Bechtler's wide-open white set, beautifully lit by Howard Harrison, the life of artist, Dana Fielding, played by former X-Files star Gillian Anderson, is put under the spotlight. The play unfolds at a nice leisurely tempo as, first, Dana is dumped by her boyfriend and then, despite the efforts of her ruthless (art) dealers, her latest show bombs.
Soon, she finds herself in a mental institution with a really odd couple, a gay drunk (Demetri Goritsas) and a sinister stalker (John Sharian). Rather surprisingly, and despite getting a second-rate shrink, Dana cannot handle the realisation that her insurance will only allow her 10 days of residency before she becomes a victim of the American equivalent of care-in-the-community.
It is then that, rather than taking mind-altering drugs, she comes up with her cunning plan to fool the authorities into believing that she is Darryl Strawberry. He is a man with his own problems but who, on his day could demonstrate The Sweetest Swing in Baseball.
With minor changes in voice and manner, Miss Anderson allows her character to take on a new persona that causes one doctor (Kate Harper) to laugh while her cannier boss (Nancy Crane) appears completely taken in.
At this point, for various reasons the story shows up a number of logical weaknesses that suggest that it is intended to be non-naturalistic. It is here that its examination of moral and philosophical issues overtakes the need to answer questions about plot that have no solutions.
Miss Anderson is on stage throughout the two-and-a-quarter hours of the play, changing on stage to facilitate speedy transitions between scenes. These are accompanied by suitably unbalanced minimalist music composed by Peter Salem.
Her main strength in the part is that she demonstrates Dana's vulnerability superbly. While she is not really believable in the Baseball scenes, it is reasonable to assume that this is a deliberate device concocted by writer and director. It is only by becoming Darryl Strawberry in her own mind that she can release her blocked creative channels and re-enter society as a success.
This is a really interesting production with hidden depths and a sting in the tail. It will prove popular at the box-office if only for the chance to see a big TV and film star on stage.
It is strongly recommended because it addresses issues of mental health and the pressures that success brings in the 21st century rat race in a really original and enjoyable way.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher