Theater archives

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.

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.

Shane’s concentrated anger is so intense that he can, if necessary, kill with a pitch; he’s the throwing equivalent of the maniacal cleanup batter in Ring Lardner’s creepy baseball story, “My Roomy.” Greenberg uses this ability to tie together Take Me Out‘s scattered strands of plot. Itself slightly magical, a blast from baseball’s brutish past, Shane’s lethal ability gives the clue to what Greenberg is actually writing—not a drama in which athletes reveal their inner reality to the world, but a baseball fairy tale, in which the masculinist aura of the game is subverted, not just by gay consciousness but by all the spirits of our time. This being 21st-century magic, its effect is grimmish and deprivative, full of the knowledge that always carries a sense of loss.

Logically enough, the best pieces of staging in Mantello’s production are the shower scenes—not because they display nude males, but because everyone in them seems, as the script instructs, so awkward and ill at ease. The imaginary threat that comes with Darren’s revelation clears away the camaraderie and towel-snapping that always look so phony when rendered by actors on a gritty stage floor, under a lukewarm drizzle. Mantello’s version suggests a Paul Cadmus canvas repainted by Eric Fischl, its wild lewdness replaced by troubling ambiguities. To point out one that nobody else seems to have caught: Shane tells Darren that, when he complained on TV about “having to shower with a faggot,” he meant “a coupla other guys.” Greenberg doesn’t tell us who on the team has not copied Darren’s openness. I think I can make two tentative guesses from bits of dialogue, but nobody asked, and I don’t tell.

The ambiguity of tone that graphs America’s troubled consciousness wasn’t born yesterday. As a diverting proof, take Gertrude Tonkonogy’s Three-Cornered Moon, unearthed by Carl Forsman’s Keen Company, which is giving it a neat, adequate showcase revival, a little rackety and a little uncertainly acted, most likely because a script so full of treacherous tonal traps takes more rehearsal time and more “playing in” than an off-off company can afford. I have to recuse myself, awkwardly, from reviewing the two best performances, since Maggie Lacey and Andrew McGinn, who play the young lovers, both appeared in a translation of mine last spring. But I believe I’d think well of them even if they were total strangers—especially of Lacey’s brisk, springlike interpretation.

Tonkonogy wrote relatively little; after her 1933 success with this play, she had only one other Broadway production, in 1948. Her distinctive name, apparently Russian or Russian-Jewish, sheds some light on the emotional seesawings of the play’s Brooklyn family, which is said to be based on her own. A giddy widow and her spoiled children, discovering that they’re broke in the aftermath of the Crash, pull together to beat the economic crisis. Meantime, the daughter’s torn between a novelist of epic diffidence and a bright but slightly paternalistic doctor. She ultimately opts for the medical man, as the audience knows she will. The script’s unexpected tensile strength comes from Tonkonogy’s willingness to give the artist due credit as well; any hack playwright of the time would have “exposed” him as a freeloading phony in the last act. The result may not be Chekhov, but it certainly isn’t Neil Simon, and it makes a pleasant gift for these times. Grim as our future looks just now, it’s nice to be given hope for the past.

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