Tuesday, February 1, 2011


If the mantra in real estate is "location, location, location," then in theater it should be "direction, direction, direction," for no actor gets up onstage and performs his or her own version of a character or a play. Rather, it is the director who has a vision of how the play should be acted and what the production should look like (with input, of course, from the set, lighting, costumes and sound designers).

This is all the more important for community theater, where the actors perform for the love of the art (not the money) and where often off-beat plays that fit the usually meager budget are produced. Direction can make or break a such production.

Nowhere is this more true in The Strollers' latest production of Rebecca Gilman's satiric dramatic comedy, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball onstage at The Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts in Maplewood through February 5.

Behind the scene at a gallery exhibit of her paintings, artist Dana Fielding is having what appears to be a nervous breakdown or a crisis of faith in her own ability. Stung by a critic's observation that works in a previous show used "a preponderance of red," Dana is in a tizzy because nothing has sold and she's not even sure she's proud of her work. In fact, some of them are still wet from her having touched them up ad nauseum to get it right. Even her boyfriend Roy has had it with her, saying, "I'm just a boyfriend, not a mental health professional!"

After she attempts suicide—by slitting her wrists vertically so as not to injure the tendons—Dana winds up in a mental institution where, even though she eschews medication so it won't interfere with her art, she grows so comfortable that she doesn't want to leave when her ten days of insurance runs out. To stay longer, she pretends to be Darryl Strawberry, the wondrous Met outfielder who had "the sweetest swing in baseball." Never mind that Dana knows zilch about the Strawb; with a little coaching from two of her fellow inmates, she attempts to snooker the doctors into letting her stay longer. She even begins to paint again: chickens playing baseball, of all things. And when her visiting dealer reports that they're selling like hotcakes, well, Dana has to face the thrill of success, and enjoy it while it lasts!

Gilman's play is a riff on how we measure success and failure, how we define one another and how one copes in private with having a public identity. To do this, she draws parallels between the artist and the baseball player, both of whom struggle with the dark side of fame, rejection by the fans and an attempt to make a comeback. In order to sustain this analogy, here presented in what could be a ludicrous way, the actors need to deliver the dialogue fluidly and crisply, so that the satire bites and hits a home run (pardon the awful pun).
Unfortunately, first-time director Metz lets the play get away from him and his actors. Because the pace is rather pokey, dead spots in delivery are just that: dead. Most of the actors didn't look very comfortable onstage and, at the matinee I attended, had trouble speaking their lines. The characters they portrayed were more cartoonish than convincing. As Dana Fielding, Dena Daniel lost my sympathy the first time she opened her mouth to whine; she continued in that vein for the rest of the play. Sarah Pharaon, as her dealer/friend Erica, appeared to be on the verge of tears whenever she spoke to Dana, and Tom McNally as Roy didn't seem to be much in love with this difficult woman. His relief at breaking off their relationship was palpable.

Cynthia Ross's gallerist Rhonda stomped around the stage to communicate her authority over her client, without a scintilla of professionalism. Tracey Randinelli as Dr. Gilbert and Sandra Eismann as Dr. Stanton triy their best to trip up their patient when quizzing her about Strawberry's life and career; Randinelli had a great time playing gotcha while Eismann looked lost. I am not sure why the playwright even wrote Dr. Stanton into the play; she has so little to do.

Faring better are Brad Harris as a young alcoholic in rehab and Jeffrey Taylor as Gary, a sociopath who tried to murder a television anchor man and has been committed to the mental hospital as punishment. Harris is rather charming as the young man who coaches Dana about Strawberry's life and career. He's been in rehab so often that he really knows the ropes. Taylor is frightening as the madman, talking rationally one moment and suddenly erupting in a scary laugh the next. Jon Mendlovitz doesn't have much to do as Dana's artist colleague Brian, except make her feel worthless as he tells her about his upcoming show.

Peter Stoffers has designed a set reminiscent of a baseball locker room, without being too literal; the empty frames hung at odd angles draw the comparison between art and baseball. Judy French's costumes suit the wearers, but several of the women were dressed in those open cardigans with points that drape down in the back; it looked too matchy-matchy.

The Strollers is a venerable theatrical troupe that has put on many outstanding shows. I didn't see the previous production, The Brain from Planet X, but it seems that they are going for the unusual this season. This is not a bad thing, for community theaters tend to rely on what Alvin Klein of the New York Times called "the tried and the tired." But to make it work, a company needs a strong directorial hand and talented actors. The Strollers struck out with The Sweetest Swing in Baseball.

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball will be performed Friday and Saturday at 8 PM at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood. For tickets and information, call Brown Paper Tickets at 800.838.3006.