London—Although standing ovations are still something of a novelty here, local audiences occasionally rise for them. No surprise, for instance, that the punters leap to their feet at the end of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, an adaptation of the 1968 film that has little to recommend it other than a levitating flivver. No shock either that they jump up at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of the excessively Bollywood-influenced—and bollixed—Bombay Dreams. But it’s still news when an audience spontaneously rises to pay tribute to a drama, as it did on the press night for Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out (Donmar Warehouse, closed). This, moreover, for a piece about baseball where the program features a glossary for audiences who easily make sense of cricket.
Not incidentally, the Greenberg play, which transfers to the Public Theater virtually unchanged later this month and could carry off next year’s Pulitzer Prize, earns its standing O. Similar reactions are greeting a number of other recent and current dramas. And if ticket-buyers aren’t bouncing off seats, they are demonstrating the kind of enthusiasm guaranteed to warm the hearts of those who might otherwise despair about the appeal to today’s theatergoers.
It may well be that what’s inspiring patrons to trumpet their appreciation is the theme common to these offerings: the psychological healing that occurs when one respects the other guy’s point of view and, conversely, the damage done when understanding fails. Greenberg takes on the theme through characters signed to a major league team called the Empires. The focal player is Darren Lemming, a biracial golden boy. Yes, the surname is meant to conjure images of programmed self-destruction, since just as the dynamic three-act play gets under way, confident and articulate Lemming announces to the press that he’s gay and comfortable with his preference.
His teammates are less relaxed about it, especially Shane Mungitt, a bigot who apparently sprang full-grown and loose-mouthed into Greenberg’s head shortly after John Rocker made his inflammatory remarks about blasphemous New Yorkers. “But ev’ry night t’have ta take a shower with a faggot,” cleanliness freak Mungitt declares into mics. And shower he does, fully frontal, as do Lemming, et al. During one of the naked-boys-swinging showers, Lemming forces on Mungitt a sample of what the latter most fears. The consequences, which include the fatal beaning of Lemming’s best friend, a player on a rival team, are illustrative of what Greenberg believes is still rancid in America. Take Me Out would be even more hard-hitting were Lemming not only a proclaimed homosexual but a practicing one and therefore living a messier life. There’s nothing wrong, however, with Joe Mantello’s crisp direction or the acting (and unembarrassed douching) by strapping and stripping Daniel Sunjata as Lemming, Frederick Weller as Mungitt, Neal Huff as an unusually literate athlete, and Denis O’Hare, who, portraying a baseball-ignorant accountant, is Greenberg’s pinch-hitter and gets to speak the play’s hopeful last line.
Hope that estranged people can and will eventually communicate is also held out in Helen Edmundson’s Mother Teresa Is Dead (Royal Court Upstairs), which could be considered a harrowing companion piece to, and maybe even an improvement on, Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul. Again, a dissatisfied Englishwoman leaves her family to work toward bettering a third-world country, and again a perplexed husband follows her. This time, however, the agitated husband, Mark, locates the missing wife, Jane. She has retreated to a villa owned by Frances, an expatriate Englishwoman having an affair with Srinivas, the much younger man running the children’s center where Jane has volunteered. Initially, Mark, an England-for-the-English advocate, seems the villain and Srinivas and Jane the much needed altruists. But as Mark presents solid arguments for Jane’s returning to him and their son, Joe, he becomes less the unadulterated heavy, and Jane and Srinivas, as well as Frances, reveal their motives to be less than pristine. Once the four wake up to what’s questionable in their beliefs and behavior, Edmundson leads them to a moving and totally credible fade-out that says much about the necessary conciliation our battered world needs now.
In The Lieutenant of Inishmore, his bloody and bloody hilarious tragicomedy (Garrick), Martin McDonagh sends up Northern Ireland political splinter groups riven by and rife with irreconcilable differences. Joey, who heads one crusading faction and would as soon kill a rival as look at him, comes home to see the only thing in the world he loves: his cat. The problem is Wee Thomas appears to have been run over by Davey, a feckless local lad with a wayward bicycle. Furthermore, Davey and Joey’s brute of a Da, Donny, attempt to fool Joey by applying boot polish to a ginger cat. Complications multiply when members of a rival splinter group intercept Joey, thinking they’ll get the best of him. Before McDonagh ends his farrago, he sends body parts flying to prove that when man insists on being inhumane to man (and woman—Joey’s new girlfriend, Mairead), no one ever gets the better of anyone else. Aside from the playwright’s dangerous implication that terrorists are usually stumblebums, he makes few errors of dramatic judgment and lands abundant sound and sight gags. Though not everyone is left standing when The Lieutenant of Inishmore finishes, the audience cheers—maybe because McDonagh has said something substantial about connections everyone aches for in his or her daily life.