Take Me Out

Review by Adam Blair

By Richard Greenberg
Directed by Joe Mantello
With Daniel Sunjata, Denis O'Hare, Neal Huff and Frederick Weller
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 him. Yet.

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 are.

This production of Take Me Out brilliantly displays all the facets of this baseball diamond.

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