What is it with British theatre and American plays involving baseball? It's not as though Broadway is awash with dramas about soccer or darts, or that Off-Broadway reverberates to the sound of leather on willow. Two years back, the Donmar Warehouse had a hit with Take Me Out, which explored the homophobia and racism contaminating the sport. That piece focused on an imaginary star player who was gay. The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, Rebecca Gilman's new play, heavily invokes a real-life heterosexual player called Darryl Strawberry. I guess it's a case of what you lose on the roundabouts, you gain on the baseball swings.
A black sportsman with a history of inherited alcoholism and well publicised recovery, Strawberry does not actually appear in the play, premiered in a skilfully inflected and focused production by Ian Rickson. Instead, his identity is loonily adopted by a Dana Fielding, a female patient in a psychiatric hospital. Her insurance covers only 10 days' stay and she isn't ready to be ejected into the outside world.
Fielding was hot property in the American art world until her paintings became tepid property after a critical pasting. This coincided with the walk-out of her understanding but sorely tried boyfriend. Negotiating a depressive episode, she's convincingly played here by the X-Files star Gillian Anderson, with the fevered glow of a sick person who makes you understand why "hurting'' has become an intransitive verb. Dana does not want to leave and she does not, ignorantly, want her personality "altered'' by medication, so she pretends that she thinks she is Strawberry to prolong her time and to resist pills in the guise of drug-tested, honourable sportsmanship.
You think: oh God, Gilman is surely not going to have the heroine find her way back to art by painting in the persona of a deluded "outsider'' artist, which liberates from the stifling conventions of the venal white art-world. But yes, she does. The parallel here is with Spinning into Butter, Gilman's play about political correctness and racism on the American campus, which managed to foreground white angst with an embarrassing on-stage absence of crucial black characters. Maybe she's operating some kind of quota policy.
The treatment of the psychiatric hospital is equally blush-inducing. Speaking as someone who has benefited from the brilliance and humanity of doctors in his own struggle with clinical depression, I am puzzled by the implication that Dana's shrink is only in the job because she failed as a dancer, and that her consolation prize is to help true artists like Dana to get the show back on the road. The complacency of that, from a middle-ranking dramatist like Gilman, is a bit rich.
Some very good actors are trapped in a play where they have to remain within crisp outlines. To add any subtext would be fatal in a piece where every effect is calculated to within an inch of its life. There are some amusing jokes, but when Gilman delivers, I always have the mental picture of someone opening a purse, doling out 10p and then snapping it shut with such finality that it demeans what has gone before. As with most of her oeuvre, the batting average is not high, but it's certainly consistent.
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