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Too batty for its own good
By Benedict Nightingale
The Times (London)
April 2 2004
This is one of those plays in which the audience sees nothing but the backs of the canvases that give the evening much of its meaning; and no wonder. The art dealers say things like "they're fantastic" and "this is a huge step forward" only when the woman they represent is supposedly painting chickens with baseball bats in their beaks. Even in the Manhattan art circus that's too clownish for credibility.
Rebecca Gilman's Sweetest Swing in Baseball gives Gillian Anderson a lively role, and she seizes it with some style. But the play itself isn't a patch on the same dramatist's Glory of Living and Boy Gets Girl, both of which were tough, inventive yet plausible. As a piece about the woes of the creative artist and the shifts of fashion, Sweetest Swing is surprisingly silly.
Act I starts promisingly, especially when you see the wan, woebegone face and glassy eyes of Anderson's Dana Fielding as she stares haplessly at paintings even she doesn't admire. And you feel her unhappiness as her big exhibition flops, taking her career with it.
After all, what's in store for an artist when the dealers tell her she's lost her old "messiness" and a rival artist amiably describes her work as "intriguing"?
A suicide attempt, that's what. Dana is caught bleeding to death in the bath, shipped to a mental hospital and put in a special unit with a psycho who has tried to murder a television presenter who "comes into my living room and talks down to me". As played by John Sharian, this character generates some menace and energy, but, sadly, he's just a distraction from the main plot. Dana's medical insurers will eject her from the hospital if she's merely suicidal but not if she convinces the doctors she's suffering from dual personality disorder.
Well, I can believe anything of American insurers, but on Wednesday night I didn't believe much beyond that. Why does Dana want to stay in the hospital when she refuses medication, thinking it will compromise her artistic identity, and doesn't seem to co-operate with the shrinks in other ways either?
And how can any doctor believe her when she suddenly claims to be the baseball star Darryl Strawberry? A play involving failure, depression and self-harm dwindles into a preposterous comedy in which a sophisticated painter strikes macho attitudes and says incongruously sporty things.
The big irony, joke, whatever you call it, is not only that the paintings Dana has signed with an amateur flourish of "Darryl Strawberry" triumph at the Biennale but that she really does begin to identify with the famous ball-player whose ups and downs somewhat parallel her own. But what does that mean and who cares? To those questions I have no good answer.