With the pennant races coming up and the threat of a strike past, it seems the ideal time for Take Me Out. Richard Greenberg's new play at the Public Theater, while ostensibly about a baseball superstar, Darren Lemming, who announces his homosexuality to the country, is as much about passionate love for the National Pastime.
That vital element of the show is provided by Denis O'Hare. Giving a wry performance as Mason Marzac, Darren's new business manager, Mason starts following Darren's team, the Empires, in order to better understand his new client. In doing so, he finds in baseball the acceptance he'd longed for, but never achieved, throughout his life. Mason's revelations about the sport, hit so close to home, it was not uncommon for audience members at the performance I attended to break into warm applause whenever he articulated for them the reasons they, too, fell in love with the sport.
Greenberg's voice most inescapably is heard through Mason's words, and they provide the biggest emotional punch of the evening. Darren's story sometimes seems little more than a frame for long speeches in praise of baseball, and sometimes seems a cautionary tale about the benefits and dangers of being true to yourself. Whatever it is, it never ceases to be interesting - while there are places where the dialogue drags and the characters (and Greenberg) must stretch too far to make a point, these moments never interfere with the progression of the story.
Darren's story is revealed within the first few minutes of the show, leaving the remainder of the play's three acts and nearly three hours to provide reaction to the events. Some, like the difficulties of Darren's teammates accepting him in the locker room, are predictable. Some, like Darren's confrontation with a John Rocker-type pitcher (played by Frederick Weller), are less so. And some, including Darren's friendship with an opposing superstar (Kevin Carroll), really throw a curve into the works.
But Greenberg and director Joe Mantello keep it all working like clockwork. The pace between the scenes (if not always in them) is blisteringly fast, the characters and events (frequently narrated by Empires player Kippy Sunderstrom, played by Neal Huff) always precisely delineated. Scott Pask's set, part ballpark and part locker room, is brilliant, while Kevin Adams's lights and Jess Goldstein's costumes complete the process of bringing you from the Anspacher Theater into the ballpark.
The performances, too, contribute a great deal, particularly Daniel Sunjata's as Darren. A seamless mix of arrogance, self-confidence, and self-assuredness, Sunjata reads for every moment the superstar the script needs him to be. Huff's role is generally ornamental until the show's dramatic conclusion, when he shines as well. Weller gives an intriguing, textured performance as Shane, the perfect foil for Darren, while Joe Lisi, as the team's captain, is the model of the wise, all-knowing father of the group.
Those concerned about such things should know that there are a number of extended periods of nudity in Take Me Out. These scenes almost do seem to scream "take me out" when they show up. Though they purport to show how Darren's revelation changes the relationships behind the scenes, why was there never one before Darren's announcement to give us a baseline for "normal" behavior? The nudity here is little more than gratuitous.
But for lovers of baseball or thought-provoking theatre, it might just be the necessary price. Take Me Out deals with racism, homophobia, the quest for acceptance, and even something as simple (or is that complex?) as baseball itself. Greenberg has provided an intriguing package of ideas inside this fascinating play, contributing to his love for the theatre - and for baseball - at the same time.
Pictured (l to r): Frederick Weller as Shane Mungitt, Neal Huff as Kippy Sunderstrom, and Daniel Sunjata as Darren Lemming in a scene from Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg, directed by Joe Mantello. Photo: Mark Douet