Base Speculations

Ticked off by O'Neill's slangy diction in The Iceman Cometh, Mary McCarthy groused, "You cannot write a Platonic dialogue in the style of 'Casey at the Bat.' " One wonders how she would have responded to Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, which is almost precisely that: a set of philosophic divagations, interspersed with plot events, to which the National Pastime contributes not only the style but the substance of the discussion. Greenberg's outlook is bleaker, on the whole, than that of Ernest Lawrence Thayer, who authored what is still the baseball fan's favorite poem a dozen decades ago. The New York Empires, Greenberg's fictional team, garners about as much joy from winning the World Series as Mudville does when Casey strikes out.

The source of the Empires' discontent is their new superstar outfielder, Darren Lemming, who is pretty much everything the media and the public would like a celebrity athlete to be in 2002: handsome; intelligent; a first-rate player; a nice guy; the seemingly contented and clean-living product of a stable, racially mixed marriage. It would just be a matter of letting the money and adulation roll in if only Darren, following a self-destructive impulse like that of the animal his last name evokes, didn't startle his teammates, at the top of the show, with a press conference informing the world that he's gay. If Greenberg were writing a social drama, the predictable elements would click into place at once. But Greenberg's discursively comic brand of playwriting eschews the obvious. Take Me Out, in fact, almost goes to the opposite extreme: Darren's self-outing arouses so little hostility that you may think Greenberg is painting too rosy a picture.

However, lots of other flies are waiting to crop up in Darren's ointment, because Greenberg seems to have explored all of the many sites that baseball links to on the American psyche—democracy, masculinity, celebrity, money, ritual, aggression—and finds provocative ideas for his characters to toss off about all of them. Far from having a plot, the play is a series of separate actions to which Darren's emergence as the first gay superhero in pro ball is only a prologue; Darren himself almost disappears from the drama in its last third, despite the quietly glowing charisma that Daniel Sunjata brings to the role.

Denis O'Hare and James Yaegashi in Take Me Out: a pitcher is worth a thousand words.
photo: Mark Douet
Denis O'Hare and James Yaegashi in Take Me Out: a pitcher is worth a thousand words.

Details

Take Me Out
By Richard Greenberg
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-239-6200

Three-Cornered Moon
By Gertrude Tonkonogy
Blue Heron Theatre
123 East 24th Street
212-560-7284

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Employing not one but two ultra-cerebral narrators, one of them a shortstop who uses words like "sodality" in locker-room conversation, the evening is packed with contemplative soliloquies in lieu of seventh-inning stretches. The most elaborate of these, a deep analysis of the trot around the bases that follows an out-of-the-park homer, falls to Denis O'Hare, as the wimpy gay financial whiz who gets hooked on baseball when he takes over the management of the hero's portfolio. Watching O'Hare transcend space and time with this rapturous, insanely complex speech is like watching a center fielder leap up to snag the longest fly ball in history; among privileged moments in acting, this is one for the record books.

And it's not the only acting peak in Joe Mantello's production. Though Mantello's staging rarely evokes either the meditative spaciousness or the raffish boys'-club quality that attract Greenberg to baseball, it seems to have lit a lot of inner fires in his cast. His one failure is with Kevin Carroll, as Darren's best buddy, a rule-book good guy playing for a rival team, who is the one person we see pick a fight with Darren after he comes out. The scene, nebulously written, doesn't ring true onstage, and Carroll, a good actor in other contexts, seems to have found neither the menace nor the outraged innocence for it. Possibly here, as at one or two other points, Greenberg was trying something too wispily subtle for everyone involved; his never being an "easy" writer is a major part of what makes his take on this easy-access, nationally beloved sport so fascinating.

Almost puckishly, Greenberg invites you to celebrate the difficulty of his prose by plumping it down in the middle of the ball club, in the person of his principal narrator, Kippy Sunderstrom, who may be a shortstop on the field but never comes to one in his phraseology. Played by Neal Huff in another of the evening's quartet of brilliant performances, Kippy is the white liberal intellectual tradition incarnate, always playing for the winning team but ready to sympathize with any lost cause or strayed soul. (He apparently speaks not only Spanish but also Japanese to teammates who lack English.)

Kippy's even prepared to offer friendship to the Empires' resident outcast, who would, in a more conventionally structured play, be Darren's antagonist: Shane Mungitt, a relief pitcher newly arrived from Utica. Unforgettably embodied by Frederick Weller with an off-balance lope, a hang-jaw blank look, and an Arkansas whine like a dental drill, Shane is not merely a Southern "redneck" (a bigoted term that I was surprised to find many of my colleagues using so casually), but a deeply disturbed person, with a childhood history Dickensian in its horrors, and a casual amorality that makes the Snopes family look like punctilious merchant princes. Weller in a sense has it easy: Part psycho menace and part helpless orphan, the role contains virtually everything an actor can use to win audience attention. What makes his performance so breathtakingly good is that he never stoops to signaling, so that you never feel your attention being manipulated.

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