Theater archives

The Rational Pastime


Like a team getting back into shape for a grueling season, Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, in its move to Broadway, has shed its excess weight, sharpened its reflexes, tightened its interplay, and worked out a nifty new set of signals. How odd that some of the daily reviewers—would they be the opposing team?—have been uttering muted cries of “Foul.” But then, as one of the more mordant speeches in Take Me Out notes, democracy, as practiced, is never quite as mature as baseball. To the superficial, a play with a gay athlete at its center ought to be a social drama about accepting gayness, with an anti-gay antagonist, a caught-in-the-middle liberal, and a simple resolution that sends you home smugly knowing which side you’re on. But the precise and original joy of Take Me Out is that, like some celebrity athletes, it refuses to toe the behavioral line of simple plays. Instead, it insists on being about democracy, ethnicity, celebrity, masculinity, honesty, publicity, purity, the sacredness of cultural ritual, and several dozen other things, from deep dark secrets up to the highest public transcendence.

That last phrase is the seventh possible meaning of Greenberg’s cunningly multiplex title: Bring me to a ball game; reveal my sexuality; help me escape the pressure; ask me on a date; get me out of the batter’s box hitless; kill me; lift my spirit from my body. All of these are alluded to in the text, but only in the last sense is the phrase actually used. A great baseball game, somebody says, “takes you out” of yourself. So, supposedly, does the catharsis of ancient tragedy, and baseball is “more mature” than democracy because it “achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades.” Where there’s equality of opportunity, somebody has to lose. This is, note, the theory of the one major character in Take Me Out who is not a professional ballplayer, the unathletic financial manager incarnated so brilliantly by Denis O’Hare. So be cautious: His is the enthusiasm of the recent convert—and to boot, the enthusiasm of a gay man who has been handed, as a client, the handsome, charismatic, biracial, well-adjusted superstar who has just voluntarily emerged from the closet. If his client were, say, a non-magnetic, argumentative homophobe, baseball might not outdazzle democracy with such ease. The human factor makes the sport, like democracy, a tricky business.

That, and not sexual preference, is Greenberg’s dramatic core: Super-outfielder Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata) may be a hero, but he isn’t a team player. Arrogant in his assumption of entitlement—he has come out without bothering to warn his teammates—he behaves with a condescension that makes his attempts at friendliness seem more like hazing. Such an irresistible force will inevitably collide with an immovable object; the one Greenberg provides is the demon shutout pitcher Shane Mungitt (Frederick Weller), a down-home bigot who is Darren’s nightmare antithesis. Darren’s childhood was all nurture; Shane’s was all violence and hostility. Darren can do anything well; all Shane can do is throw the ball (and he has only one pitch). Darren, disgusted, thinks of walking away; baseball, even with a team that despises him, is Shane’s only link to life.

Yet Darren is friendless too: In their extreme isolation, he and Shane are less opponents than parallels. In the play’s pivotal act, Shane fulfills a wish Darren has expressed. As a consequence, each undergoes a tragic fall of sorts, but like takings-out, some tragic falls are more fatal than others. The catalyst to both Darren’s and Shane’s fall is, ironically, the teammate who means best by both of them, the clubhouse’s resident source of liberal-intellectual compassion, shortstop Kippy Sunderstrom (Neal Huff). Kippy’s problem, like liberalism’s, is the willingness to vacate principles for the sake of approval. Where Darren and Shane can each stand on a belief in the other’s inferiority, Kippy wants above all to be everybody’s pal. The inherent dishonesty of this makes liberalism, too, suffer a small tragedy.

And none of the above—it’s Greenberg’s ultimate comment on the game’s ritual power—affects the team’s ongoing progress. The tragic fact that democracy evades and baseball doesn’t, the mousy financial whiz Mason Marzac tells us, is that somebody has to lose. He doesn’t say that somebody has to win; in tragedy there are no winners. The form is one in which the great losers are celebrated: The victorious Greeks made Hector of Troy immortal. Take Me Out‘s big winner is its clown, the rhapsodist-philosopher Marzac, who only watches the game, and who, by the end, has acquired all the status a fan can have, including a nickname bestowed by a superstar. The ordinary guy watching wins, but the champions lose even as their team triumphs, which is not what we like to see, even though we know the ordinary guy is us.

At least, some of us do. Part of the explanation for the new improved Take Me Out‘s strangely mixed reviews is that O’Hare’s wonderful performance has been enriched by a daring tactical shift. Downtown, he played a gay man who habitually kept his gayness concealed for business purposes. But there is nothing to conceal: All of Marzac’s scenes are with Darren, and Darren is already out when they begin. So for Broadway, O’Hare has let the character’s Chelsea-ness show through. He isn’t campy or noticeably swishy, but he is, from the start, distinctly gay. And he is the spectator, the audience’s point of contact with the action. Which, apparently, makes a problem for some. But the beauty of democracy is, precisely, that everyone honest can speak for it equally. And like democracy—the play, which doesn’t translate its Spanish, doesn’t let you know when its Japanese is being translated accurately, and doesn’t present black-white relations as an ongoing source of tension (except for Shane, who hates everybody)— is less multicultural than non-judgmental. That’s its great achievement, as well as its most disorienting quality: How much simpler life is, after all, when you can let George Bush, or the author, tell you exactly whom to hate. Greenberg doesn’t tell, and the only person you can fairly ask is yourself. This strategy gives Take Me Out the sense of living in the present that most current New York theater lacks, and one that I think it’s going to retain for a long time to come.

That sense is enhanced considerably, now, by Joe Mantello’s production, a fulfilled work for which the downtown run was only a rough sketch. Along with the cut and reshaped text come sharper details and a tighter emotional focus. With the larger stage come bolder actions, stronger tensions, and more sense of the game. Sunjata’s found the trajectory of his role; Huff’s found ways to sneak an extra sense of jitters into his. Weller’s Shane seems haunted by even darker demons. Even if we’ve only started to grasp the quicksilver structure of this troubling, complex play, it seems preposterous for anyone to complain about an evening that offers so much. And O’Hare’s performance is one for the record books.

Radiant Baby, the Public Theater’s musical about Keith Haring, has a vivid presentness too, but of a considerably lesser kind. Sculpted masterfully by George C. Wolfe’s directorial eye, its easy flow is often eloquently beautiful to gaze at. But inside this visual wonderland, there’s little to perceive except the same mopey old tropes, as another idealistic young artist gets chewed up by the fame machine. Stuart Ross’s book keeps dropping hints that there’s more to Haring’s story, and Ira Gasman’s lyrics, at their best, are so stingingly exact that you wish they would grapple with the bigger issues. The writers get little help from Debra Barsha’s music, drably repetitive filler waiting for someone else’s tunes. Even Wolfe’s lush compositions are sometimes sandbagged by Fatima Robinson’s choreography, which mistakenly tries to evoke a club scene by literal reproduction, a sure way to make audiences wish they weren’t sitting down. Praise to Robinson, though, if she invented Daniel Reichard’s goofy, broken-legged dancing style as Haring when he finally takes the floor: It tells you more about Haring than anything else in the show.

What drove Haring, to what extent he hastened his own downfall, where his vision and his imagery sprang from—the show slides across these questions but hardly explores them. A big deal is made of his veneration for Andy Warhol, but only linked to Haring’s marketing, not his art. There’s no sense of his un-Andyish enthusiasm for the forbidden, of the link between his drawing in subways under threat of arrest and his exploring the homosexual nightworld (the sexually graphic nature of some of his work goes unmentioned). Nor, despite the title, do we ever hear anything about the significance to him of his most familiar and heavily marketed image. The insufficiency’s maddening because, when Radiant Baby‘s on, it’s spot-on, with beautiful work particularly by Reichard and Kate Jennings Grant. When it’s off, which is frequently, it’s just an overdecorated case of the blahs in hip-hop drag. And when Wolfe’s designers capture Haring’s work most successfully, you feel his magical presence under this pile of noise and clichés, desperate to get out. And that really hurts.

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