So I went to see a play. The Sweetest Swing In Baseball Which had Gillian Anderson in it.
Oh shut up. It was at the Royal Court. That makes it *art*
(See. I've responded to your heckles as you were reading. I anticipate your every need, gentle readers!
No, not in that way. You've been reading too much internet filth again, haven't you?)
I think we all know why I went to see that one. One day I will go to plays for reasons other than stunt casting, to see actors who do not have a TV show or movie between their first and surnames whenever you read the paper, but that day is not coming soon.
Maybe June, I'll go see Conor MacPherson's new play, and feel all artistically appreciative and literate and well-read and other things that I'm not really, but at the moment I just want to see Cyrano De Bergerac, which stars the adorably crumple-faced Stephen Rea and was a film I loved.
I'm not entirely certain of the wisdom of premiering a play with baseball in the title in a city which thinks that baseball is just cricket for people in a hurry who have insufficient appreciation for the joys of a nice tea. However, Rebecca Gilman (who has, I think, previously premiered plays at the Goodman) picked the Royal Court this time. Rather than Chicago, a town which has, I seem to remember, some substantial, if painful, interest in baseball. Okay then.
The premise is this: Dana, is a 38-year-old New York artist in a slough of depression which intensifies when her latest exhibition bombs and her boyfriend leaves her. After her attempted suicide, we find her in a psychiatric hospital. Threatened with being thrown back into the world when the insurance money runs out, she fakes a psychiatric disorder. On impulse she assumes the unlikely identity of the Afro-American baseball star, Darryl Strawberry, and rediscovers her love for art.
Which I read and thought "Oh my dear sweet God, I'm going to be watching a train wreck."
While it has its rough patches, it is far from a trainwreck -- and no knowledge of baseball necessary, thank God. It's also quite funny. Not the kind of ribtickler that would make granny wet her knickers, but pleasingly snarky.
However, the play is actually about three things: depression and how to escape it; how critics and dealers are really wannabes who loathe the artists for having the talent that they do not and how to get back up after experiencing a critical pasting. Only two of the three really work, though I imagine Gillian Anderson gets some relish from the last.
There are five actors, each playing multiple parts save for Anderson who is on stage for all but about 30 seconds. The truth is, she's really very good in the part, changing from a tensed up ball of rage and misery at the beginning, moving through desperation as she fears she's about to be thrown out into a world which wants nothing to do with her now she's a flop, to a loose, confident and honest person who no longer cares what the art establishment thinks.
We mostly concentrate on the inmates of the psychiatric unit. There is the amiable but slightly lost Michael, an alcoholic coder who is in rehab for the second time, and Gary, a heavily medicated sociopath, who tried to murder a CNN anchorman he believes is the fount of all evil.
They're both deftly drawn, especially Gary, who is played against expectation. Rather than being psychotic or taunting Hannibal Lecter-style, he's played as an eloquent, sarcastic pub bore, which only makes him funnier.
He's sceptical, and when Dana manages to convince the doctors in the hospital that she should be allowed to stay (I don't think they buy her story for a second though they ensure that the insurance company does, temporarily), he grows angry and a little malicious.
The other four characters, played by the other two women in the cast, work less well. Rhonda and Erica, the art dealers, are used for a broad caricature of the rapacious modern art world, where everything is *so* five minutes ago and the middlemen reap all the profit. I think Gilman means for Erica, who visits Dana in hospital, to be more sympathetic but there's very little for the actress to go on.
The idea that Darryl/Dana's new breakthrough paintings are of chickens in baseball caps is hardly the stuff of great satirical subtlety either.
The play is so concerned with getting across its point about the commercialisation of art (and, via the Darryl incarnation, sport), there's no admission that critics and dealers can be motivated by love of art and by a desire to see it in its purest form. There's no idea that dealers can be honest brokers or procure exposure for unknowns because they love the work.
Gilman's broad-brush criticism also takes in the doctor at the hospital, who begins by wanting to put Dana on seratonin re-uptake inhibitors rather than deal with the impossible situation she faces. I think we're meant to think that the two doctors show understanding by telling the insurance company that Dana's disorder is a genuine one when they know damned well she's faking, but that's somewhat lost.
It's way too pat that one of the doctors turns out to have been a failed dancer. The text devalues the work she does as a therapist by making artists -- whether people who are supremely physically gifted like Darryl Strawberry or people who are gifted painters -- the ultimate in humanity, with the rest of us just envious, exploitative chaff. I'm not sure that that was the intent but it's the way it emerges.
I wasn't entirely sure what the play was saying at the end either. Rather than give up her protective carapace of pretending to be Darryl once she is back on her feet and a success, she continues to pretend. You see her deciding not to drop the persona as she meets Michael on the outside.
Is Gilman really saying that it's so impossible for Dana to deal with the world as herself that she has decided to become someone else for good? Is maintaining a polite distance from other people -- even those who would not judge you -- a reasonable way to respond? I found it upsetting, which may have been the intention.
I honestly don't know what Gilman thinks. The end's the play's weakness. The second act is not pointed enough or fleshed out enough to be ambiguous; it's just a messy ending, albeit one with a great last line.
* * *
So, the one-line review:
Play = funny in places but a bit messy and thinly drawn; actors = all *terrific*.