I’m not sure even special agent Dana Scully could make sense of “The Sweetest Swing in Baseball,” which casts onetime “X-Files” star Gillian Anderson as an altogether different Dana: a painter at the end of her proverbial rope. Rebecca Gilman’s play, the American writer’s fourth at her apparent London home, the Royal Court, would seem to be an aesthetic cri de coeur — for the self-doubting artist at its core, one could easily substitute a dramatist — and it contains an assaultive final line in the best Court tradition, with Dana barking the word “fuckers” at the audience. But the entirely admissible anger driving the play is all but sidetracked by a conceit so ill considered that the script seems considerably loonier than its central character. It’s not until well into the first act that Dana, having landed herself in a psychiatric hospital, adopts the alter ego that allows her to remain there. “I’m Darryl Strawberry,” she announces.
Well, bro, I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it, and it scarcely eases matters that Dana’s personality disorder isn’t actually meant to wash. (The published script makes clear that Dana is always “essentially herself,” no matter how much she tries to impersonate the New York Mets slugger — himself besieged by somewhat different demons — for the sake of the various doctors in her midst.)
You could ask why Dana, told near the play’s start that her recent paintings lack “that visceral quality” and “messiness” possessed by her earlier work, reacts to such remarks by attempting suicide. (One explanation: Dana, once touted as a visionary, has fallen considerably short of expectations, her own as well as those of others.)
But even if one accepts the frightening path of depression — a condition that needs few external prods to cut terrifyingly deeply — one may question her commitment to an institution requiring the diminutive Dana to reinvent herself as a 6’6″ African-American in order to be able to stay on after her insurance runs out.
As for alighting upon Strawberry, Dana is well aware she could have chosen a different alias. Not, however, another artist, since, as Dana puts it, “I want to be something good.”
“Sweetest Swing” is shot through with just such self-reproach, and the intensity of Dana’s alienation is reflected in Hildegard Bechtler’s design. Watching the play’s various artists appear dressed in the profession’s requisite black, you quickly note the visual affinities between the airless chic of the hyped-up gallery world and the antiseptic drear that is hospital white. (Howard Harrison’s lighting has a blinding sterility to match.)
On the social front, life inside the ward is evidently more comforting than the great critical maw beyond. Dumped by her boyfriend, Dana finds an unexpected support network in fellow patients Michael (an engaging Demetri Goritsas), a gay alcoholic with a passion for baseball (“The two are not mutually exclusive,” he says of a gay man liking baseball), and the sociopathic Gary (John Sharian). That Gary is played by the same actor first seen as Dana’s b.f. Roy generates typically Gilmanesque irony: Gilman’s last Court play, “Boy Gets Girl,” posited an apparent nice guy who turned out to be a stalker, so why shouldn’t “that crazy stalker guy” Gary turn out to be a better bet than your average boyfriend?
It’s Gary, in any case, who voices this play’s decidedly sour creed: an environment where artists exist to be stomped, he tells Dana, “until their blood flows black.” (The same exchange contains a defense of John Grisham, who is at least a name that may mean something to Britons none too conversant with the icons of American baseball.)
One only wishes Gilman had made things easier for herself. For all this play’s valid critiques of the peculiar ways in which value is attributed and ascribed (or not) in contemporary culture, “Sweetest Swing” runs smack into a governing plot device that even Strawberry at his peak couldn’t have made fly. No amount of textual disclaimers can rectify the feeling that Gilman, for all her self-serving high-mindedness, is scoring easy, patronizing laughs off the Dana-Darryl axis.
The narrative isn’t fair on Anderson, either, who is reduced to verbal riffs reminiscent of the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor film “Stir Crazy” — with Anderson playing both roles.
To be fair, the hard-working star has a lot more to chew on here than she did in her London theater debut some 16 months ago in Michael Weller’s “What the Night Is For,” another American play that crossed the pond for its world preem. And as he showed in a 2001 production of “Boy Gets Girl” easily surpassing its Off Broadway forbear, Court a.d. Ian Rickson knows how to register those human concerns that, in Gilman’s work, aren’t easily separated from authorial contentiousness.
Still, could anyone reconcile the issues coursing through “Sweetest Thing” with the inherent silliness surrounding its governing idea? (Among other things, we’re asked to believe that Dana-as-Darryl gets a second artistic lease on life by painting baseball-playing chickens!) I hate to add to the malaise that quite possibly shaped this play, but all the sympathetic collaborators in the world couldn’t keep this script from striking out.