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The Times (London)
April 11, 2004
Gillian Anderson - in a league of her own
Gillian Anderson hits a home run, but The Sweetest Swing wastes its potential
By Victoria Segal
Gillian Anderson proves her worth as a stage actress in a magnetic and witty performance at the Royal Court.
Van Gogh's severed ear, Sylvia Plath's suicide, Kurt Cobain's drugs: even those who couldn't pick the Sunflowers out of the Take Hart gallery recognise the touchstones of misery that have become the defining moments of these lives. Everyone likes an artist to suffer - not only does it provide a great story for the made-for-TV miniseries, it also indicates a plane of emotional intensity that mere mortals can barely comprehend.
Yet Rebecca Gilman's new play The Sweetest Swing in Baseball (Royal Court) has a more sinister explanation for the popularity of these Athena-style icons of depression and madness. The myths of artistic misery aren't born out of harmless romanticisation, she argues; instead, the untalented masses just want to exact cruel punishment on anyone who dares to be better than they are. They want the artist to pay.
You have to wonder if, written by a much lauded playwright, this is a rather self-regarding premise for a play. Defending yourself in a grasping world where visionaries are destroyed by the plodders and grafters who seek to control and commodify is hardly a topic that packs a universal punch, and it's difficult not to sense an unspoken "poor me" hanging over the stage like dry ice.
Playing the victim of this destructive culture, Gillian Anderson adds another Dana to her CV, this time as Dana Fielding, an artist struggling with her successes. She has been heralded as "the new vision of a new generation or something", but the pressure to live up to her reputation has pitched her into depression and, as a result, creative inertia. Her latest exhibition has been attacked by the critics and the cognoscenti, her beloved therapist has died and her boyfriend, driven "crazy" by her high-maintenance demands, has left her. One off-stage suicide attempt later and she finds herself in a mental hospital, where she forges a close alliance with her fellow patients, the gay alcoholic Michael (Demetri Goritsas) and the psychotic lifer Gary (John Sharian). Yet she can only stay for 10 days before her insurance runs out, and, desperate not to go home, she pretends to have a personality disorder, assuming the guise of the African-American baseball legend Darryl Strawberry, himself a man whose talent was destroyed by addiction. As Dana retreats into her new personality, she starts to paint again, her Strawberry-style chickens in baseball caps becoming the toast of the art world when her dealers sell them as "outsider art".
In its themes of baseball and the impossibility of living up to your "early promise", The Sweetest Swing in Baseball is reminiscent of Michael Chabon's work, yet Wonder Boys never feels so earthbound, so sterile, so stifling. For the scenes set in the gallery where Dana shows her work, this is appropriate - amid the set of frosted glass, you can almost taste wine in chewy styrofoam cups, hear the clacking heels of air-kissing women and clacking egos of graceless competitors. Yet even the hospital where Dana winds up offers little in the way of diversity - her psychiatrist (Nancy Crane) has a rarefied past as a failed dancer, and even the inmates, so colourful on paper, lack edge. Michael just seems charming, urbane and largely undamaged, while Gary - the "sociopath" whose violent fascination with a newscaster has led to his incarceration - is prone to no-nonsense wisdom. It is he who tells Dana that her friends' constant exhortations to "enjoy your success" are code for "I deserve it more".
Despite the dramatic potential generated by Dana's breakdown and the clash of environments, the play feels like overwashed elastic that's lost its spring, tension pulled to stretching point, then sagging rather than bouncing. Any sense of Dana's drive to create and self-destruct comes from Anderson's charismatic performance: tiny and alert like a spring-loaded china doll, she excels at seeming on the verge of collapse without indulging in cliched eye-rolling mania or catatonic staring. You can see her struggling with the sheer physical effort of holding her life together, eyes brimming luminously with tears, smile straining across her face. When she turns into Darryl Strawberry, her body language shifts again, the incongruous looseness of her new persona combining poignantly with her watchful vulnerability. Like hunters who believe that by eating an animal they take on its strength, you can see her drawing on "The Straw" for protection, fleshing out her own meagre psychic reserves with his personality. It's a subtle, shifting performance, one that flourishes in the gaps left by the writing.
The rest of the cast offer sturdy support: Nancy Crane is brash and brittle as the art dealer Rhonda Block - her indignant line, "I'm a gallerist", gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening - while Sharian also stands out as Gary, the obsessive stalker who supplies the cold philosophy at the heart of the play. Significantly, he doesn't actually want to become the man he stalks, he just wants to kill him, and somehow that makes him the happiest character of all. After all, he's in a field of one: unlike being an artist, there's no competition to be the psychotic stalker of one particular newscaster. If you want to be content in life, the message runs, find a vocation free of rivals.
No wonder, then, that it often seems as if this play would work better as a pure black comedy. Gary's world-view, Dana's quirky metamorphosis, the strange paintings which, disappointingly, remain unseen - it would make an inventively bizarre satire. Yet The Sweetest Swing in Baseball has an axe - or a pen - to grind, and the result is ultimately a pretty joyless, indulgent take on the burdens of talent, a work that valorises the suffering of the artist, even while it professes to despise it. Cheer up, it might never happen, people say. Gilman, you suspect, would be disappointed if that were the case.