American Games, an Araca Project production developed primarily by recent alums of Syracuse University's various BFA programs, honorably represents the educational spirit of the project's mission. As an initiative that offers young artists a rare opportunity to mount full-length off-Broadway plays, American Games, as to be expected, translates as a production-in-training, but with several glimmers of promise peeking through.
Playwright Kevin Slack proves himself to be a talented writer in desperate need of a dramaturg. He centers his story around the all-American baseball motif, though he never quite decides what he wants the motif to communicate, getting lost in a sea of characters and shifting plot lines. The play begins with a storyline revolving around a sports journalist named Patrick Hayes (Taylor C. Hays) who has a lead on a 21-year-old star pitcher, Henry Wool (Matt Maretz), who has made the unfathomable decision to prematurely hang up his glove. When he travels to Wool's hometown to scoop the reason, we expect to follow the two along similar soul-searching journeys through their parallel career crises. Slack, however, abandons the relationship between these two kindred spirits as he tends to Wool's many other relationships — namely with his alcoholic father, John (played by John Walter), his frustrated fianceé, Laura (Chelsea Niven), and his new protégé, a troubled 17-year-old and up-and-coming baseball star named Roy Russell (played by Malcolm Yancey). While Slack aims for each of these relationships to, one-by-one, excavate the pieces of Wool's character, hoping to explain why he threw away a potentially legendary career, he instead overwhelms the audience with a mountain of characters that he has no time to develop with any satisfying level of depth.
Slack seems to have taken inspiration for much of his dialogue from fellow Syracuse alum Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom), to both its benefit and detriment. Though his script successfully presents him as an intelligent writer, the Sorkin-esque banter and pontificating prose often sound as if they come from a place of mimicry rather than an authentic voice. His presence in the dialogue is all too apparent for us to settle into the any of the characters, though Phil Blechman's heavy-handed direction is not blameless. Raised voices are frequently used as a substitute for emotion, minimizing the potential dimensions of the characters' interactions. The strongest and most nuanced performance among the cast comes from Hayley Palmaer, who plays an aspiring lawyer and Patrick's strong-willed love interest, Cheryl. Unfortunately, her character falls victim to the play's constantly changing tides and is left permanently dangling near the beginning of Act II.
The one constant throughout the play is the row of portraits of baseball legends that hovers over the stage as characters and set pieces (designed by Ellie Engstrom) fly in and out of the wings. The simple elegance that their images conjure is what Slack strives for in his central character of Henry Wool: an untouchable demigod floating ethereally through his own experience. However, we are left needing something more to ground the character in his fallible humanity, of which we only see a quick burst as the play comes to a close. The many characters sent into the trenches to act as foils to Wool are meant to serve this grounding purpose, but instead, merely muddy the exploration of the complex central character Slack hopes to create.
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