Regional Reviews: Chicago
Take Me Out
In one of George Carlin's most famous comedy routines, he compared the American pastimes of baseball and football:
"In football (the quarterback) marches his troops into enemy territory ... with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line. In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!"
Richard Greenberg's baseball drama picks up on this idea to propose the sport of baseball as an analogy for the ideals of democracy and fair play. Is Major League Baseball, with its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic teams "safe" for all its players? Is the principle of fair play and equality implied in the game's rules honored consistently? Would it be if the unthinkable happened and a currently playing superstar, one so good he could not be ignored or abandoned, came out publicly as a gay man? About Face has made a reputation exploring themes like this the gay experience in America or simply the experience of being an "other" in our country but most frequently they've presented new material rather taking on a recent Broadway hit. In fact, not long ago they sent a hit to Broadway (they workshopped I Am My Own Wife). Given the recency of Joe Mantello's Tony-Award winning production (of Take Me Out) in the memories of Midwestern theatergoers who caught the show, this will be About Face's first opportunity for a direct comparison to New York work. On that basis, if readers will allow me just an easy baseball analogy, their production is a solid base hit, a triple for sure ... maybe even a home run. Just not a grand slam.
Certainly Eric Rosen and his cast have put together a solid production that effectively communicates the many ideas of Greenberg's play and gives the audience a good time. (In fact, it's about time About Face lets us enjoy a few laughs). Its strong cast is dramatically and physically believable as major league players and balances Greenberg's humor, philosophy and dramatic tension as the season of the fictional New York Empires (dressed in pinstripe uniforms, courtesy of costume designer Janice Pytel, that remarkably resemblance those of the Yankees) careens into tragedy.
Chief among the production's virtues is Tom Aulino in the role that won Denis O'Hare a Tony. As Mason Marzac, the gay business manager for the recently out superstar Darren Lemming (Derrick Nelson), Aulino charms the audience with Marzac's boyish enthusiasm upon discovering baseball and for the first time in his life feeling a part of a community. (The gay community won't really have this nebbish little guy, he explains to Darren). Aulino captures Marzac's little tics and insecurities while going near but not quite over the top.
I think Aulino has an easier task than the other leading players, however. The role of Kippy, Darren's only confidant on the team, shows just what a tricky proposition it can be to perform Greenberg's work. Greenberg has his own voice: manic and full of ideas, mostly but not always linear, and he gives this voice to Kippy as well as to Mason. Kippy, described by Darren as "the most intelligent man in Major League Baseball" has to blend Greenberg's philosophical, analytical nature with characteristics that would make him believable as a professional athlete. Hall is a fine actor, with the physique and classic All-American looks to fit that bill, but I'm not convinced he's found a way to make Kippy's intelligence and sensitivity an organic part of the character.
Darren's a highly intelligent person as well, and though Greenberg has not created him in his own image, it's still a tough role. Darren's a superhero. He's not like anyone else, he knows it, and he won't pretend otherwise. This seems like arrogance, but isn't exactly. How could he not know he's different, what with his success on the field and the millions he's being paid? As a result he's lonely and Greenberg lets his humanity eventually show through. Derrick Nelson does fine with this part of the character, but I didn't feel he had quite captured Darren's superstar qualities the "presence" that would humble adult men into little boys before him. In fact, Nelson's Darren seems quite overpowered by his narrow-minded, conservative Christian best friend from a competitive team, Davey Battle (James Vincent Meredith), in their climactic confrontation.
Kyle Hatley's wild mane of hair and hillbilly accent make him a believable redneck as Shane Mungitt. He shows sufficient rage at one point he pounds his fist on a table so strongly I thought he might punch a hole through it but his youth and traditional good looks make him ultimately less threatening than was Frederick Weller in the role in New York.
In the mostly humorous supporting roles, Rosen has an effective supporting cast, especially Danny McCarthy as the stubborn and over-the-hill infielder Toddy Koovitz, and Benjamin Sprunger as the dimwitted rookie catcher Jason Chenier. Christian Castro and Juan Francisco Villa earn laughs as the Spanish-speaking Martinez and Rodriguez in their short comic bit mocking the starting pitcher Takeshi Kawabata. James Park Ingram, who empathetically displays the stereotypical Japanese disgrace upon losing that Greenberg gives the character, plays the Japanese pitcher. Doug James warmly plays the smaller parts of the team manager, Skipper, and the well-meaning but disillusioned fan William R. Danzinger.
Rosen adapts the action well to the limited space of Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theater, with the help of a clever set by Brenda Sabatka Davis that makes use of the players' individual locker carrels - at times realistically, at times surrealistically. When Kippy describes action of the Empires' game, the players pantomime their play in place, each in their own carrel. Another nice touch is the inclusion of projections announcing the beginning of each of the three acts. Greenberg makes such a point of baseball being a game of multiples of threes (two characters make note of that) that the practice of performing the show with only one intermission otherwise loses an analogy to traditional three-act dramatic structure.
As Greenberg (and Carlin before him) reminds us, baseball is a leisurely game. Rosen seems to be trying to reflect that in his pacing of the performers, but Greenberg is not a leisurely writer. Rosen and cast may want to try a little more fine tuning of their rhythms to let Greenberg's language be what it is messy and energetic - an uneasy, imperfect balance of the presentational and naturalistic. They could also work some more on landing some of Greenberg's funnier lines, a few of which sail by when they should be getting a laugh.
Still, I'm comparing the performances of a cast that had been playing the material for just over a week to a production in which most of the players had done it for well over a year. Though this run is scheduled to close on May 1, there's nothing booked in the theater until October 20th and in all likelihood they'll have time to settle in a bit more. I'd be willing to bet Rosen's Empires end up with a longer season than this year's Chicago Cubs.
Take Me Out runs through May 1, 2005 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Ticket prices are $35-40. Performance times are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. There are no performances on Saturday, April 9th; there is an additional 7:30 pm performance on Sunday, April 10th.
For tickets, call Audience Services at (312) 335-1650 between 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day and 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on days with evening performances. Real-time online ticketing is available at www.steppenwolf.org.