By Richard Greenberg
Directed by Joe Mantello
With Daniel Sunjata, Denis O'Hare, Neal Huff and Frederick
At the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City
Normally I hate it when people expound on the deep "meanings"
of baseball. You know the type of thing I'm talking about:
people saying baseball is a return to our pastoral past, that
it's a metaphor for what's best about America, that it's the
last bastion of all that is good and true and right about
our world. One of my favorite baseball movies, Bull Durham,
makes this blather go down easy by having the resident baseball
philosopher be played by Susan Sarandon as a sexy, slightly
scatterbrained baseball groupie.
Despite the fact that Richard Greenberg's play Take Me Out
contains one of those "meaning of baseball" speeches,
I loved it - the speech as well as the whole play. That's
in part because, while baseball is definitely the medium for
the play's play of ideas, it really has much more on its mind
and in its heart.
I also don't mind the "big baseball speech" because
it's delivered by marvelous actor Denis O'Hare in a kind of
breathless rapture, as if he's just stumbled on something
so wonderful that he can't help but share it with the audience.
O'Hare plays gay accountant Mason Marzac, whose new client
is baseball superstar Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata). Darren
has recently made the startling announcement that he's gay.
Actually it's only startling for baseball and the rest of
the world. Darren is one of those amazingly lucky, confident
people who is so happy and secure about who he is that he
really can't imagine it will be a big deal for anyone that
he prefers sleeping with men rather than women. It's not that
he's naïve; it's just that bad things don't happen to
Mason, on the other hand, would probably rather be someone
else - anyone else - until he begins to watch and comprehend
the mysteries and meanings of baseball. It's better than democracy,
he declares, because it comprehends, and even demands, that
someone will lose. Baseball, he says, has the tragic vision
that democracy lacks. O'Hare's acting skill makes it clear
that Mason has never really felt passionate about anything
before baseball - and Darren - became part of his life.
Sunjata's Darren is also a remarkable collaboration of the
playwright's imagination and the actor's skill. Darren simply
isn't bound by the rules and restraints that the rest of us
poor schmos have to live with. It's not only that he's an
amazing athlete. Racially he's half black and half white,
and that hasn't been a problem for him. He's rich, he's a
star player on a winning team (the play's Empires might as
well be called the Yankees, the pinstripes on their uniforms
are a dead giveaway). In short, everybody loves Darren, and
Sunjata makes it's easy to see why. Even his arrogance is
endearing. Yet the skill of the play is to reveal how isolated
- even weak - Darren really is, when things do become darker
for him and for those around him.
I'm making the play sound much heavier, and possibly more
melodramatic, than it is. It's actually very funny and very
entertaining, especially in its first act. Lemming's announcement
comes right at the beginning, and we're treated to the discomfort/possible
homosexual panic of his less-than-brilliant teammates, including
David Eigenberg (the father of Cynthia Nixon's baby on "Sex
and the City") and Kohl Sudduth as a dimwit catcher.
Director Joe Mantello stages these scenes for laughs, and
with the help of an amazing ensemble cast he gets them, but
he and playwright Greenberg are really just setting us up
for something deeper. Betrayal of all shapes and kinds is
lurking around every corner.
The darkness is precipitated by the arrival on the suddenly
slumping Empires of relief pitcher Shane Mungitt (Frederick
Weller). Mungitt is racist and homophobic but throws a mean
fastball, and we all know what's really important to baseball.
Unfortunately, now that he's on a major league, major market
team, when a TV microphone is shoved in his face the nearly
Neanderthal Mungitt mouths off about "having to take
a shower with one of them faggots." Weller plays Mungitt
as a combination of loudmouth jerk John Rocker and a backwoods
psychopath from Deliverance.
One of the most interesting things Greenberg does is set
up Lemming and Mungitt as opposites who are actually strangely
similar. On the surface they're as different as they can be:
Lemming is witty, charming, handsome and confident. Mungitt
is withdrawn and almost pre-verbal. Yet both are cut off from
all the people around them. Lemming's god-like superstar status
makes him superhuman, but at the same time unable - or unwilling
- to connect with other people. As for Mungitt, all he is
is what he does: he throws the ball hard. These two isolated
individuals will inevitably come into contact that's more
violent than either of them could have imagined.
The acting all around is excellent (again, credit should
go to Mantello, both for that and the clean, imaginative staging).
If the Tony Awards committee could work out the politics to
give an award for best acting ensemble, Take Me Out would
shut out the competition. Sunjata conveys Lemming's utter
gracefulness and his arrogance with such charm that we see
why everyone loves him (platonically and otherwise). Neal
Huff, as Kippy Sunderstrom, the brightest Empire player, makes
the most of every line he's given. Playwright Greenberg cleverly
makes Kippy seem so innocent that his betrayal comes as a
stunning second-act surprise. Weller's Mungitt is appropriately
repellent and pathetic in turn. Denis O'Hare gets every laugh
possible out of his part but also shows us the depth of his
desire - a desire that's only partly sexual - to stay connected
to something, and someone, so beautiful.
Playgoer's alert: There's a significant amount of male nudity
in the play (not that I'm complaining). It's appropriate to
the action, most of which takes place in the Empire locker
room and showers, and it's relevant to the theme: that Lemming's
publicly admitting his homosexuality rips these ballplayers
from their metaphorical Eden. As Kippy says, they now have
to be aware of their nakedness, nor can they feel free to
be "girlish" and playful any more. I think Greenberg
has stumbled on a key reason why real-world athletes, and
professional sports in general, fear homosexuality so much
(and why the very few homosexual players who do come out wait
until their playing days are over to exit the closet). It's
less about the potential for desire than it is about the actuality
of loss. That loss must be especially jarring for people whose
work is literally play. For some players baseball is undoubtedly
just a job, but for most it's more than that-it's who they
This production of Take Me Out brilliantly displays all
the facets of this baseball diamond.