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Independent on Sunday
By Kate Bassett
April 4, 2004
MAD? OR JUST SWINGING THE LEAD?
Superb: Gillian Anderson in The Sweetest Swing...
But it's a glowing review," says Dr Gilbert. She even lists the journalist's admiring adjectives before remarking: "There's only one sentence that's not completely complimentary... There are some weak spots... But these are hardly worth mentioning.'" Dr Gilbert is Dana's therapist. Dana is an artist, and her response to the article about her painting is: "Bitch... If it's hardly worth mentioning, why bring it up?"
Rebecca Gilman's new play, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, is a fierce challenge to newspaper critics and, indeed, to anyone who might comment on another person's creative work. Talk about walking on eggshells. The aforementioned cavils have made Dana (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) obsessively gloomy. Her boyfriend leaves her, she suffers a cool response to her new exhibition and dismissive comments from her avaricious dealer, Rhonda (Nancy Crane). She then cuts her wrists and is placed in a mental hospital, under the more caring, though not wholly protective eye of Gilbert (Crane, doubling).
Gilman's piece strongly implies that for "painter", we could read "playwright". Firstly, Dana develops some kind of alternative personality disorder, taking on the identity of a once-celebrated baseball player named Darryl. A fellow-patient points out that you need only "translate it out of the baseball" to understand it's her talking about herself incognito. Secondly, in a sudden twist, the action turns outwards to take a swipe at the audience as a crowd of unwanted appraisers. On press night, you could almost hear the critics gulping, swallowing a dose of their own medicine or nervously weighing up the job in hand.
It probably is worth mentioning a couple of weak spots where Gilman unnecessarily spells out analytic points. But this is a highly intelligent play, and one senses a robustness in Gilman's satirical humour and implicit self- criticism. The games played with pretend personae are also richly fascinating, Pirandellian and Shakespearean, with the swaggering Darryl being a liberating alter ego as well as a shield. At the same time, the dialogue has a spare simplicity, which the excellent director Ian Rickson fully appreciates.
Hildegard Bechtler's set is a bare artist's studio, where huge white canvases lean against walls, some with their backs to us. The acting is also beautifully understated, with a delicate balance maintained between comedy and grief. On one level, Darryll is the play's central joke. Dana is faking madness to stay in hospital for free, and clearly she's clueless about sport. But the pretence is rooted in genuine fear, and Anderson looks as if she is desperately fighting back tears. It's an extraordinarily double performance - simultaneously entertaining and tragic. One of the best productions of the year to date.