Reviewed by Will Stackman
As with other works by this author, Chicago playwright Rebecca Gilman's "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" takes a potentially interesting question about the intersection of social responsibility and personal life and oversimplifies it. Her instincts trend toward melodrama and her characters are essentially stereotypes that even experienced actors may have trouble overcoming. This play did well enough in London with Gillian Andersen in the lead, but has run into criticism on this side of the pond in San Francisco and in Chicago where it's about to close. Running only eighty minutes without intermission, but having at least a dozen scenes, the show feels like a staged Lifestyles TV movie.
Its main character, true to form, is Dana, a contemporary painter, played with conviction by Sarah Woodhouse, seen last fall at Actors' Shakespeare Project as Cordelia. Here she's possibly miscast, but seems to be enjoying the role, with its range of misery and madness, real and imagined. The author has provided Dana with a reported troubled background and some snappy responses, but there's not enough to make the audience really care. Her troubled family background is seems more an excuse than a motive. The play's shorthand structure leaves no time for discussion.
The other four actors in the cast each play two parts, not necessarily related. Two IRNE winners, Chris Brophy and Maureen Keillor have important, but ultimately not pivotal roles. Chris, fresh from touring as Macbeth for the New Rep, plays Dana's boyfriend, a frustrated artist who leaves her--that may precipitate her suicide attempt--and a psychopathic thug in the institution where she's checked in. The strongest scene is a confrontation between the two of them in the occupational therapy room which unfortunately doesn't really get anywhere. Keillor, who's done shows for BTW before, plays the owner of the gallery--where Dana's last show is a failure--and her psychologist, Dr. Gilbert. The artist's had several therapists during the last few years. Rhonda the gallery owner is practically a stock character and Dr. Gilbert's one interesting detail, that she trained to be a dancer is never explored. It's just another passing factoid.
Similarly, the characters played by Eve Passeltiner and Adam Soule don't get beyond the traits Gilman has assigned them. Passeltiner is Rhonda's ambitious assistant and briefly, Dr. Stanton, the head of the institution and old friend of Dana's former therapist--who died. As Erica, the assistant, she's befriended Dana, and would really like her to change allegiances when the former starts her own gallery. The conflict between her friendship and self-interest is never really tested. Soule first plays an up-and-coming young artist briefly, almost a walkon and Michael, an alcoholic prone to binges, who's also a gay computer programmer, which might be relevant but seems merely trendy. The most sympathetic of the lot, he could be developed into a much more useful foil.
Scene designer Jenna McFarland provides an effective set whose walls unfold to change the stark gallery of the show's first and last scenes into several locations at the institution, done in. The crew wears scrubs which makes the changes less intrusive. Costumes by Molly Trainer help the cast distinguish between their dual roles; Dana's might be a bit less depressive. Nathan Leigh's effective sound design could use a touch more music; P.J.Strachman's lighting handles the multiple scenes with ease, given the old Plaza's limitations. All in all, BTW has again provided a well-conceived production, but unfortunately can't improve the script enough.
The real problem is that in eighty minutes, even with a skilled ensemble, there's not enough time to develop relationships between these characters which might lead to drama. Instead, the author seems almost be writing a parody of a parable about her own recent rise to transient fame. Gilman relies on one-liners and blackout scenes rather than actual confrontations. Moreover, the conceit that the leading character, in order to stay longer than her cheap health insurance will allow, pretends to be Darryl Strawberry and finds some kind of psychic salvation thereby is a joke without a punchline, and possibly exploitative. London audiences might have accepted a Canadian playing an American artist pretending--rather badly--to be a Black baseball superstar with a checkered past and a drug habit. Here, she strikes out, to employ an obvious metaphor, as Gilman too often does. Having the faux Strawberry take up painting, successfully, takes the play further down a very slippery slope. And don't get me started about the chickens.