nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
August 21, 2007
Frank Little, the aging baseball star now plagued by unreliable knees and a 0-for-27 batting slump, is the leader of the 1959 baseball team we are introduced to in a Detroit hotel, in playwright Matt Doherty's Mr. Baseball. They are on a road trip, with plenty of time to kill between games, and killing it they are, with whiskey, poker, ball-busting, and storytelling. It is a ritual that seems ghost-like; rarely do today's athletes let loose and socialize together like this anymore. But Frank and his teammates are finding small comfort in their traditions. Rumors of a hot phenom coming up from the minors to replace who-knows-who hang heavy over the veterans. The team is struggling; everybody is vulnerable. Their salaries are good, but this is still an age when it was common for baseball players to take on jobs during the off-season to make ends meet, and once a player's career ended, few were set for life. An era is coming to an end, and few of these men seem prepared to truly grow up. Doherty has written a nuanced modern-day tragedy, and the fatal flaw of hero Frank "Mr. Baseball" Little is one that crushes many an adult soul: immaturity.
Playing Frank Little is Michael Stock, who also serves as the play's director. He deftly weaves his character through wild mood shifts, while keeping him sympathetic, even likeable much of the time. Stock strikes a riveting contrast between Little's brash arrogance, and the vulnerability that softens his voice and makes it almost childlike as he describes the therapeutic effect of swinging a baseball bat for the first time in the angry, lost days following his WWII military service. In an expertly written scene by Doherty, Stock somehow manages to find a buffoonish charm as Frank bungles the wooing of Sandy (Danielle Fink), an attractive woman he has picked up as much to salve his loneliness and fear of an uncertain future as his libido. He tries as hard at keeping her from leaving as he does at getting hits on the field, armed with none of the surplus grace and ability he has for the latter activity. It is a tightly written, believable romance scene. Such a thing, in its simple profundity, resonates boldly amongst the kitsch irony and iconoclasm that sometimes characterize the Fringe Festival.
Stock, as director, does a commendable job with the large group scenes, using all of the large stage, and focusing the eye where it needs to go when much is happening at the same time. While he is larger-than-life in the Frank/Sandy scenes, Danielle Fink's performance does not go much further than the second row. That's where I was seated, and if I had been not much further back, I would have been unable to hear many of her words. Her performance is believable, but it is getting lost in her scenes with Stock. By enlarging it slightly, those scenes would shimmer even more, and not seem so engulfed by the Lucille Lortel Theater, a sizeable off-Broadway house.
Sideway Theater Company is based both in New York and Chicago, where this play premiered. Many of the original cast members are in this production. It is a company that seems very committed to telling gritty, compelling stories onstage. There are few performances left at FringeNYC of this production. If you miss it, do keep an eye out for their next New York visit. They are folks to keep an eye on.