Review: ‘Value Over Replacement’ by Ruben Grijalva at Playground’s Festival of New Works (***)

by Christine Okon

“Value Over Replacement” (VOR) is a baseball stat that calculates the skill set and bankability of a player in a “Moneyball” view of the world.  Ya gotta have heart, yes, but baseball is a numbers game. VOR may be an efficient way to cull and build a winning team, but it can also be a scythe that levels an individual player’s aspirations and future in the game.

In Ruben Grijalva’s play, “Value Over Replacement,” we meet one such player, Edward “Chip” Fuller, powerfully portrayed by Jomar Tagatac.  We see Chip at different stages of his life: as a boy dreaming of knocking it out of the park, eager to please his hard-driving father; as a scrappy minor league player who works up to a spot on a major league team; and as the affable co-host of the “Chip and Drake” drive-time radio sports talk show where he is the veteran eminence playing the past glory card.

But that glory had a price. You can make a deal with the devil, but you may lose integrity. The sad reality is that the player is not that much different from a thoroughbred horse trained to win.

On the radio, Chip engages in amiable banter with his sidekick Drake (Alex Shafer), taking calls and tossing around the latest story of fraud involving another player outed as a steroid user. That player, Clawson (a smartass played convincingly by Christian Haines), is held up as an example of how the noble game has deteriorated. When it all becomes a numbers game, morals and role models fly out the door. If you literally don’t add up according to the valuation algorithm, well, you’re OUT.

What a disappointing role model for kids, say the call in listeners.  What a disgrace to the noble sport of baseball. What a game changer. What a shame.

But then we learn the secret that Chip has been hiding — he, too, is guilty of juicing. How Chip deals with this reality, and the impact it has on his wife, his boy, his friends and the public, drives the drama. If he comes out as a drug user, he blows his reputation and all that has been built on it: fame, security, family. If he continues to hide, he’s lost his integrity. He wishes he could say it ain’t so.

In the tight space of the Thick House Theater, director Jim Kleinmann manages to suggest different locales — home, ballpark, courtroom, field — with great economy.

The actors are superb in multiple roles, including Melissa Ortiz as Chip’s loyal but exasperated wife and Stephanie Prentice as Peggy Briggs, the stricken mother of a desperate-to-succeed teenager who destroyed himself with steroids. However, when these two actresses take on additional minor parts, it is sometimes confusing to differentiate who’s who, a difficulty that perhaps should have received more attention from the director.

Martha Brigham skillfully brings to life three young boys: young Chip; Chip’s autistic son Alex, and the idol worshipping but doomed Danny Briggs. We will see more of this actress.

The play has some beautiful phrases and monologues, but could use more differentiation in cadence. Not every character can emit a concise and meaningful interpretation of life. Precise articulation may convey literal meaning, but there’s power in the pause, caesura, negative space and silence, as suspenseful as watching a player try to steal second base.

Minor flaws will no doubt be smoothed over during the course of the run, and “Value Over Replacement” will emerge as a clear winner.

“Value Over Replacement” continues as part of the Playground 20th Annual Festival of New Works at the Thick House Theater through July 10, 2016. For more information, click here.

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Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Value Over Replacement” by Ruben Grijalva. Director: Director: Jim Kleinmann. Lighting Designer: Kate Boyd. Sound Designer: Josh Senick. Costume Designer: Joceylyn Leiser Herndon.

Cast:

Jomar Tagatac (Edward “Chip” Fuller); Alex Shafer (Jack Fuller, Dan Drake); Martha Brigham (Young Chip, Alex Fuller, Danny Briggs); Melissa Ortiz (Emily Fuller); Christian Haines (Mike Clawson, Congressman, others); Stephanie Prentice (Peggy Briggs, Congresswoman, others).

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