The view from the sidelines fascinates playwright Joel Shatzky. His promising, lucid Amahlia concerned a figuratively tortured U.S. ambassador to an unnamed South American dictatorship who lives vicariously through his ex-lover, a doomed dissident journalist from that country. In Girls of Summer, written in the 1980s and now running at Brooklyn's Impact Theater, Shatzky looks at major league baseball from the viewpoint of a trio of players' wives. In the play's most successful moments, the team wives recognize how their lives have been sidelined—by the ruthless sports industry in general and their individual husbands in particular. However, the play suffers from a sitcom-style flight from genuine conflict, repetitive jokes, and a lack of psychological realism.
Girls of Summer predates, I think, the ensemble-of-housewives TV genre (as exemplified by Desperate Housewives, The Housewives of Orange Country, and, in the U.K., Footballers' Wives), but it does not transcend it. I saw the show, upon the company's request, at a final dress rehearsal where a few elements were still being ironed out—one actor in the smallest role is partially on-book, but I was assured he will not be when the run begins. Still, the glitches that ruined the play for me will be retained, because they are in the script.
Shatzky's three graces of the sidelines are thinly drawn types. Gina Marino (Heidi Azaro) is married to the team's most valuable player. She is a frantically religious Italian-American who knows her husband Dom's every game better than any sportscaster, but is in obvious denial about his playing beyond the ball field. Mary Lou Davis (Jennifer Oleniczak) is a Southern belle, desperate for her daddy's withheld approval and married to the rookie player. She knows nothing about baseball and is initially the butt of jokes by Gina and milquetoast sidekick Toni Browning (Loren Karanfilian).
When Gina is visited at home by her husband's sleazy manager, "Shifty" Jack East (Tim Lewis), who inexplicably wants her approval of Dom's new contract, the women must learn to overcome their differences and first impressions. Unfortunately, the intermission begins with that conflict apparently solved, and the problems the characters will face next are only hinted at: they show little sense of imminent danger. This deflates the suspense that ought to captivate an audience until the house lights fade again.
In Act 2, things get even messier. There are new challenges to the players' fragile careers and to Gina's marriage, while Mary Lou still struggles to fit in among the cliques of team wives, and Toni starts considering that she should make a career for herself in case her husband loses his. These professional and personal conflicts are promising and could have been developed into compelling theater. But they are soon deflated by the sitcom-style insistence that everybody should hug, make up, and feel all better before the entertainment ends.
The most glaring example of that formula made me absolutely lose my ability to suspend disbelief. It is at the end of the play and is a revelation, so if you intend to see Girls of Summer, you might not want to read on. When it is revealed that one of the wives has been raped by another's husband, the rapist's wife not only is relieved that her friend did not betray her but later makes jokes about her husband's (the rapist's) small endowment. Her friend, the woman whom he raped, actually laughs at and elaborates upon this.
By bringing this conflict up very late in the game and smoothing it over so easily, the play misses another opportunity for genuine, psychologically realistic conflict. Azaro and Oleniczak are competent actresses, capable of naturalistic acting when the play demands it, but their laughter at this moment seems as robotic as those of the wives of a different community: Stepford. I understand that it is a grave thing for a critic to reveal any part of a play's denouement, but this one is so far out in left field, it sends the play mercilessly to the dugout.
In the program notes, Shatzky writes that, in writing Girls of Summer, he wanted to explore "how the wives of these sudden millionaires coped with ... husbands who had been told, since they were big enough to hit a ball or throw one, that they were gods." A fascinating, funny yet tragic play could be drawn from that premise. After all, when the Greek gods were egocentric rapists, the best of the ancient writers knocked them clean out of the sky. If Shatzky's Girls of Summer played that kind of hardball, he would be batting 1,000.