Playwright Rebecca Gilman wants to say a lot in "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball," the dark comedy that's opening the Annie Russell Theatre season at Rollins College.
The play tosses out idea after idea: what it means to be a celebrity, the role of criticism in art, the way our health-care system works (or doesn't), the line between creativity as fun and creativity as joyless work.
But as fast as the topics arise, the play marches on — and somehow without illuminating its characters. It's to director Jennifer Cavenaugh and the Rollins cast's credit that the audience is able to at least care about Dana and her compatriots onstage.
Dana is at the center of the story. A painter, her last show has bombed, leading her to attempt suicide. After being placed in a psychiatric facility she finds she likes the routine and security. To avoid being discharged she fakes a personality disorder — pretending she's baseball player Darryl Strawberry — with the help of a sociopath and an alcoholic, fellow patients. Then, her art begins to sell again.
As Dana, Alexis Riley is onstage the entire show, and she neatly plays a woman on the edge of a mental breakdown without going over the top. She also has a comic knack for playing Dana unconvincingly acting like Darryl Strawberry.
Ryan Lambert combines charm and well-placed unnerving laughter to make the audience care about (and slightly fear) sociopathic stalker Gary, and Jon Perry is sweetly fragile as lonely, lost alcoholic Michael.
Most of the quips land with laughs, and the pace leaves no time for reflection on the inherent sadness of mental illness and addictions. In this case, though, playing the comedy leaves the feeling of laughing at these characters from afar, not really seeing into their souls.
Kyra Wagner's costumes are fun: Gary wears T-shirts with funny sayings; the art-gallery bohemians wear bold plaid pants, scarves and trendy necklaces — and that's the men.
The eye-catching scenic design, by Lauren Cushman, features a backdrop that resembles a tumultuous abstract work of art early on, evoking Dana's mental state. It gives way in the second act to a more serene background of brightly colored draperies.
For all the talking points "Sweetest Swing" raises, no grand conclusions are really reached — though to be fair, there are no pat answers to be found. Still, a bigger payoff would help sweeten this story.
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•What: 'The Sweetest Swing in Baseball'
•Where: Annie Russell Theatre at Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park
•When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; through Saturday, Oct. 1
•Tickets: $20; $10 students
•Call: 407-646-2145Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times