nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
August 15, 2008
In baseball, the knuckleball is a pitch thrown with the fingertips gripping the ball lightly and very little arm movement; ideally upon release the ball will approach the plate without spinning, allowing the wind to take hold of the seams and causing the ball to move very erratically toward the plate. When thrown properly, the knuckleball is very difficult to hit, but with even the slightest spin it becomes merely a very slow, easy-to-hit pitch. With this attendant uncertainty, very few pitchers throw the knuckleball, although some who do have gone to the Hall of Fame.
William Whitehurst, in making Knuckleball the title of his play, has chosen well. He's thrown one: the script moves deliberately toward its conclusion, taking many wild and unforeseen turns before doing so, but ultimately landing in the catcher's mitt successfully, a strike. The play, in one 60-minute scene, consists of a conversation between Ross, a welder who by his own admission "doesn't have much imagination," and his well-traveled, cultured paramour, Trish, that takes some interesting and—to Ross, at least—shocking turns.
The play opens with Ross and Trish returning to Ross's apartment, in terrifically high spirits. So high, indeed, that as the "Star-Spangled Banner" plays—a hilarious touch—Trish gives Ross a fairly real-looking (though simulated) blow job, practically before Ross can even sit down. After this initial climax, they proceed to settle into some random chit-chat, with Trish exploring Ross's messy apartment while she waits for his "batteries to recharge" for further sexual activity, eventually finding some old baseball trophies. Some of these trophies belong to Ross, but there are a few belonging to Travis, an old friend of Ross's (and a talented knuckleball pitcher) who mysteriously disappeared some time before. Ross and Trish then share their mutual love of baseball, Budweiser, and fishing, and Ross, as would any reasonable man who discovers his beautiful and stylish girlfriend also likes sports, fishing, and unpretentious beer, proposes marriage.
This is where things get a bit sticky—where the knuckleball begins to wobble—and this is where the plot synopsis must stop before the above-mentioned spoilers are revealed. I'll say only that Trish had a very interesting time in Europe.
Whitehurst embraces the melodrama attendant in his plot, never letting either Ross or Trish become ridiculous, and the conclusion, where Ross says, "You're going to sit on that end of the couch, and I'm going to sit on this end of the couch, and we're gonna finish this bottle of whiskey nd talk about everything that led us to this point . . . and then we're gonna see if we have anything more to talk about," is near-perfect. Indeed, I'd go so far as to call it one of the best last lines I've ever seen in a play.
The acting, by both Shawn Parsons as Ross and Judy Merrick as Trish, is superb. Either or both characters, in the hands of insufficiently talented actors, could become caricature, but Parsons and Merrick—with Jeremy Pape's sure-handed direction—are entirely human and terrifically compelling for the entire show, never letting the knuckleball throw them off their bearing as it dances toward the plate.
My only caveat with Knuckleball is that a certain amount of disbelief may have to be suspended at two points (which points will be obvious when you see the show, which you should). But if you're looking for a well-written, well-acted, entertaining show in this year's FringeNYC, go to the Soho Playhouse and see Knuckleball.