Swing Low

When a play condemns criticism, what's a theater reviewer to do?

"When making love -- in an effort to prolong the moment of ecstasy," begins a well-known Woody Allen stand-up skit, "I think of baseball players." Allen isn't the only artist to seek transcendence in America's favorite pastime. Dana Fielding, the failing New York painter at the center of Rebecca Gilman's new play, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, harnesses the spirit of a famous outfielder to help her get back into the game.

Unsurprisingly, everyone around Dana -- who winds up in a mental institution following a suicide attempt after a poorly received solo exhibition -- thinks she's putting them on when she starts pretending to be ex-Yankees player Darryl Strawberry and daubing her canvases with pictures of chickens sporting baseball caps and bats. Psychiatrist Dr. Gilbert is under no illusion that her client's sudden inclination toward calling people "dude," swaggering about like she's wearing her pants down by her crotch, and looking bemused when anyone mentions the word "biennial" is a genuine personality disorder: The elaborate performance is just an excuse for the disconsolate artist to stay within the safe confines of the hospital and put off facing the real world. Meanwhile, the less cynical view Dana's awkward attempt to emulate Strawberry as an effective, if rather extreme, kind of therapy. It's what she needs to do, it seems, to pull herself out of her crisis and become successful once again.

Like "science," the term "art," in the sense of painting, drawing, sculpture, etc., is a Victorian delineation -- both words were introduced into everyday English around the 1850s. The rather rigid Victorian idea still widely persists: Professional art is a valuable commodity, one that contributes to a nation's cultural capital. Meanwhile, for amateurs such as patients in hospitals and mental institutions who paint and draw under the mantle of occupational therapy, art is viewed as no more than healthy recreation, irrespective of its audience. Its practitioners are patronizingly labeled "outsider artists," a phrase that Erica, the assistant dealer at Dana's gallery, reluctantly uses to describe the person behind the chicken paintings in the play. For while Erica knows how to package and profit from exciting new work by critically acclaimed painter Dana Fielding, she hasn't the foggiest idea what to do with pictures of baseball-playing chickens signed by some amateur under the name Darryl Strawberry.

Woman on the Verge: Dana (Barbara Pitts) thinks 
she's Darryl Strawberry.
Evren Odcikin
Woman on the Verge: Dana (Barbara Pitts) thinks she's Darryl Strawberry.

Gilman's play gives mothballed Victorian notions about art a vigorous shake by dismantling the relationship between commerce and the artistic process. Watching Barbara Pitts, who plays Dana in the Magic Theatre's American premiere production, nervously knock back glasses of wine in the rear of the trendy New York gallery on the opening night of her solo show, is to understand something of the true price of fame. Boxed in by J.B. Wilson's set, with its frayed canvas panels crisscrossed with vague gray and brown strokes, the visual metaphor is resoundingly clear: Staggering under the pressures of commercial success, art becomes a prison, and madness perhaps the only legitimate means of escape.

The central conceit of the play -- Dana's "transformation" into Darryl -- reverberates on so many levels that the viewer gets tied up in knots just thinking about it. In one way, the harmless bit of role-playing is what sets the painter free: As an "outsider artist" operating beyond the narrow interests of the art clique, Dana escapes her prison and begins to thrive on the artistic process once again. In another, her increasingly close identification with one of baseball's most unhappy characters (the real Strawberry has spent years in and out of rehab on drug charges) undermines her triumphal comeback at the end of the play. Like the makeup Erica encourages Dana to wear to cheer herself up in the mental hospital, Darryl may just be a face Dana paints on to help her perform at her professional best. Or is Dana a face Darryl paints on? Then there's the idea that Dana may be genuinely mad, a contemporary fictional embodiment of artists like Vincent van Gogh, Robert Schumann, and Sylvia Plath, all of whom ended up in asylums. And we haven't even touched upon what the business of pretending to be someone else means on a metatheatrical level, what Barbara Pitts playing Dana Fielding playing Darryl Strawberry says about the nature of performance, and how the casting of Michael Ray Wisely and Joseph Parks each in two roles -- as artists Roy and Brian and psychiatric patients Gary and Michael -- emphasizes the thematic link between artists and insanity. Considering The Sweetest Swing in Baseballin these terms is enough to make you believe that all artists are mad.

So it follows, then, that Gilman's play puts me, the reviewer, in an uncomfortable position. Cultural critics are, after all, generally regarded as part of the detestable commercial machine. The voice of critical approval has a nasty habit of legitimizing art, while noises of derision in the broadsheets destroy it. From the very start, the play's position on critics -- like art dealers -- is apparent: Condemned to write about (or sell) other people's art because they're not skillful or brave enough to produce any of their own, these "leeches" take their revenge by sucking artists' blood. Critics, in the view of the play (or can I go as far as to say "in Gilman's view"?), are ultimately no more than baseball bat-wielding chickens, cowards who like to take a swing at everyone else.

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