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A CurtainUp Review
The Batting Cage
By Les Gutman
After a successful world premiere as a part of the 1996 Humana Festival in Louisville, The Batting Cage waited patiently (as if it had a choice) for its off-Broadway opportunity. That chance has now materialized, and the play has arrived, virtually intact, at the Vineyard Theatre. Three of the four actors recreate their Humana performances; Lisa Peterson returns to direct them. It's a good thing.
How rare and magical it is when two actors suit their roles, and each other, as well as Veanne Cox and Babo Harrison do here, and doubly so when they are working with a director who knows precisely how to exploit their talents to maximum potential. That is the good fortune of this production.
Set in an oceanfront Holiday Inn room in Florida (perfectly replicated down to the last detail by set designer Robert Brill), Julianna (Cox) and her sister Wilson (Harrison) have convened to find a final resting place for the ashes of their recently-deceased sister, Morgan. They arrive without their mother who was injured in an accident with a bicycle messenger, and also without their sister's ashes, which are said to be in a lost piece of luggage. We are left, thus, with just the two sisters -- an odder couple than the stage has seen recently.
Wilson arrives in the room first. Big-boned and muscular, she's dressed in a blue Eddie Bauer polo shirt and khaki shorts; she wears nerd glasses. She gets right down to business: dropping her luggage, pulling out an electric screwdriver and replacing the light switch with a dimmer; then, she plops face down on the bed. This is the first clue to what this character has in store for us. The audience is roaring with laughter, and not a word has been spoken.
Now it is Julianna's turn. She enters chattering excitedly about the brochures for every tourist trap within driving distance. She's dressed in a bright floral dress, trying hard to look just right. The audience is still laughing. We are then treated to a discussion -- the one anyone who has ever shared a motel room has had -- about who should get which bed. It's a classic. Wilson never opens her mouth and Julianna rarely shuts hers. Wilson speaks to her sister so little that Julianna has even purchased a self-help book to coax her into conversation.
All but speechless through the early part of the play, Ms. Harrison performs essentially a mime comedy; she is an understated master. She has met her match in Veanne Cox, whose rapid-fire delivery is combined with a skill in physical comedy that demands comparison to Carol Burnett. Scene after scene, one outdoes the other. (I'd have to say Cox wins -- performing brilliantly, and having great fun, with things as mundane as eating a piece of taffy or suffering from a bad sunburn. But it's a close call.)
So, we have world-class comic performances by two actors we won't soon forget, and they are well worth the price of admission. What else do we have? As it turns out, not as much as one would hope.
The comedy starts strong. One of the difficulties in writing the kind of hard-core comedy playwright Joan Ackermann attempts here is that it's unrelenting. Luckily, this production can rely on the talents of its actors to manufacture huge laughs from launching pads like "I met a conquistador" and "I have a barnacle growing in my ear," even when the material starts to wane. Staged with lesser talent, many of Ackermann's weaker stabs at cleverness might be beyond salvation.
The more serious core of the play has no laughs to redeem it. These sisters have real issues to confront: their sister is dead; they are barely talking, Julianna is recently divorced and very unsure of herself, and both sisters have yet to find a great deal of fulfillment in their lives. Character development is refined and quite good, and the minuet Ackermann and Peterson have created, edging the sisters closer and closer to one another, is neatly designed. Nonetheless, there is a painfully trite poignancy to much of their self-realization. (E.g., "Whatever happened to the present tense?" and "Hermaphrodites never have to get divorced." Ugh.)
For Wilson, self-realization occurs (as one might guess) in a batting cage. Her epiphany, presumably a critical moment in the play, is as clumsy as it is absurd. A visit to a planetarium prompts Julianna to wax poetic about how her dead sister was their pole star. I don't think this was supposed to be funny. After a series of detours that seem wholly unnecessary (a discussion with Bobby from room service (Justin Hagan) about his girlfriend's body piercings and tattoos falls in this category), the girls' mother (Anne Pitoniak), about whom we know virtually nothing, arrives suddenly with a bag of tricks to get the play to its obvious conclusion.
Justin Hagan, the other transferee from Louisville, does well as Bobby and in a couple of other walk-on roles (one of which may be the funniest as well as the most subtly meaningful moment in the show). Pitoniak, an otherwise talented actress, doesn't get much of a chance here.
Costume designs by Candice Donnelly add immeasurably to the productions pluses. (Julianna has arrived in Florida with an extensive and varied wardrobe, most of which she never wears; Wilson brought ten identical shirts and a single pair of shorts.) Not to be ignored, stage hands are cleverly attired in the Holiday Inn employee uniforms. Fabian Obispo's sound design is very playful and well suited, and Kevin Adams' lighting is particularly good, especially the variations of light streaming in from the oceanfront balcony.
Ed. Note: For a review of another play be Joan Ackerman, produced in the Berkshires by Shakespeare & Co.: Off the Map