Call me un-American, but I have never cottoned to baseball.
As a result, I cannot wax eloquent over the baseball imagery in Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out."
I cannot, for example, analyze his Talmudic flights over the importance of the mystical number three and its multiples in baseball organization.
I cannot challenge his assertion that "baseball is better than democracy because it achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades."
Unable to deal with "Take Me Out" philosophically, I have to treat it as a play. In that context, I'm afraid, it's a mess, though an amusing one.
As the pun in the title indicates, "Take Me Out" is about a gay baseball star, Darren Lemming, who outs himself. This might have been interesting had we seen what he went through to make his announcement. However, this has all happened before the curtain goes up.
The play itself concerns how his teammates respond. Here, some of the reactions, like that of a Japanese teammate, might more accurately be described as skits.
Others have a quasi-philosophical aura, as when Darren's best friend, Kippy, says: "We've lost a kind of paradise. We see that we are naked." I haven't spent a lot of time in clubhouses, but this just doesn't ring true.
Nor does Greenberg's treatment of Shane Mungitt, a John Rocker-like pitcher, who joins the team and soon insults Darren publicly. Greenberg handles Shane's propensity for violence in a convoluted way.
The most convincing part of the play is the depiction of a closeted accountant who becomes Darren's financial manager and whose reluctant embrace of baseball leads to a hilarious blossoming of his personality.
Whatever the weaknesses of the play, it is performed splendidly.
Daniel Sunjata radiates all-American heroism and sanity as Darren. Frederick Weller has a furtive, diabolical power as Shane. Denis O'Hare makes the accountant's flourishing truly joyous. Neil Huff is enormously winning as the narrator.
Joe Mantello has directed it sharply, projecting its abundant humor well. He has also done a marvelous job "choreographing" scenes where the actors simulate playing ball, which owe much to Janet Kalas' sound design. It is well-designed and lit.
Whatever its lapses in logic, "Take Me Out" is funny and well-acted.
Quite the smartest part of Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out" is the triple-play resonance of its title, with those can-nily apt suggestions of baseball, homosexuality and sudden death.
The rest of the play, which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theatre after playing London's Donmar Warehouse and off-Broadway's Joseph Papp Public Theater, isn't quite so clever, although it certainly has its moments of fun and wit.
An enormously admired and charismatic biracial ballplayer, Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata) gives a press conference to announce he's gay. Likely? Not very. Mike Piazza summoned the press to announce that he wasn't gay, but that's a different matter.
Still, Lemming's revelation doesn't seem to have too much of an effect on his career or his status with the team or the fans - until some incredibly hayseed relief pitcher, Shane Mungitt (Frederick Weller), brought up from the minors to save the champion team's fast-fading fortunes, spouts off on a radio talk show:
"I don't mind the colored people - the gooks an' the spics an' the coons an' like that. But every night t'have t'take a shower with a faggot!"
Even a John Rocker doesn't rock that far. Meanwhile, poor Greenberg is still only a third of the way through his play. What to do?
He has a Japanese pitcher throw a near-perfect game, only to blow it, then have the relief guy, just off the suspension list, step in and hurl a literal killer-diller.
Okay, it could happen. But what does it mean? What does it tell us?
What, for that matter, does Greenberg, a late convert to baseball, have to tell us about the game?
He has one character - Lemming's gay money-handler, Mason Marzac (Denis O'Hare), who makes the late Paul Lynde seem like Tarzan on Viagra - flash all this philosophical guff about "baseball being a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society," etc.
Just take me out to the ballgame, buster!
Admittedly, such thoughts are presented with irony and attitude - even more irony and attitude now than earlier, off-Broadway, yet they still stick in one's craw.
Joe Mantello's staging - featuring two nude shower scenes that are unnecessary to anything but the box office - looked much better at the Public Theater than here on Broadway.
That said, the play is dazzlingly well-acted, which makes it seem a whole lot better, and shorter, than it really is.
As Darren Lemming, Sunjata looks like a star in the making, and O'Hare, Weller and Neal Huff (as Lemming's philosophical commentator of a teammate) are terrific.
But not even classy acting and sassy dialogue can help a play that's buck-naked at its core.
Looking for a natural high in the down, down days of late winter? Well, it is said that eating chocolate can simulate the heady sensations aroused by the first phases of being in love. But if you're allergic to the stuff or on a diet, you may want to consider an unlikely but potent alternative that goes by the name of Denis O'Hare.
Mr. O'Hare, an actor whose presence automatically illuminates any stage, is shining these days with the gloom-dispelling wattage that comes when a first-rate actor meets a role he was born to play. The role, in this case, is of a man falling -- no, make that sky-diving -- in love. And when this fellow, a socially challenged money manager named Mason Marzac, talks about baseball in Richard Greenberg's ''Take Me Out,'' it's impossible not to share in his trembling, all-transforming ecstasy.
Baseball? That's right. In ''Take Me Out,'' which opened last night on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater after a sold-out run at the Joseph Papp Public Theater last fall, Mr. Greenberg brings his gymnastic verbal skills to bear on the subject of the all-American pastime. And when Mr. O'Hare takes center stage as the conduit of Mr. Greenberg's feelings about the sport, this comic drama emanates a dewy, delirious passion not unlike that in the opera being performed a few blocks away, Puccini's ''Bohème.''
There is much more to ''Take Me Out'' than Mr. O'Hare, although that may not be your impression when you leave the theater. The play, which has been advantageously shaved and streamlined from three acts to two for its Broadway incarnation, has an involved and ambitious central plot in which Mr. O'Hare's Mason figures only as an onlooker.
That's the story of Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata), a god among baseball players and the star of a team called the Empires, who sets off a complicated chain of ultimately tragic events when he publicly announces that he is gay. This allows Mr. Greenberg to consider -- in language that gives joltingly bombastic dimensions to locker room humor -- big, big subjects like sexual and racial prejudice, moral responsibility, public versus personal identities and the inability of people to ever truly know one another.
Whew! That's a roster that would have overloaded even Sophocles. And in trying to give theatrical life to each theme, Mr. Greenberg winds up sacrificing fully developed characters and credible plotting to Ideas with a capital I. Despite a vivid ensemble of actors who embody a lively spectrum of bat wielders, ''Take Me Out'' ultimately fails by the dizzyingly high standards it sets for itself as a metaphysical mystery play.
But the director, Joe Mantello, has sensibly chosen to emphasize the play's less ponderous aspects. These include zippy (if improbably polysyllabic) dialogue; a hypnotic narrative that does much to disguise the potholes in the plot and is appealingly delivered by Neal Huff as a shortstop with the worldview of a novelist; and a host of good-looking guys standing around naked for the show's already notorious shower scenes.
These moments are meant to illustrate the sexual self-consciousness that descends on the team members after Darren declares his homosexuality. But to tell the truth, the shower scenes don't really feel essential, and they wind up confusing the discomfort of the players with the more general sense of discomfort that can accompany full frontal nudity in a mainstream play.
This, of course, is what sent a lot of people to the Public Theater last fall (bearing binoculars, in some cases). Whether such nudity will be a similar draw on Broadway, where it usually takes a naked celebrity (e.g., Kathleen Turner) to pack 'em in, remains to be seen.
The designer, Scott Pask, and Mr. Mantello have done a fine job in scaling up both production and performances to match the more expansive scale of a Broadway house. As a Derek Jeter-like figure of racially mixed parentage and class-crossing charisma, Mr. Sunjata exudes the relaxed confidence of a man who takes his divinity for granted. That you see little evidence of the change that Darren says he has undergone at the play's end is less Mr. Sunjata's fault than Mr. Greenberg's.
The production also benefits from Mr. Huff's spontaneous delivery of commentary that can be quite a mouthful, even with the deletion of phrases from the earlier version like ''male sodality.'' And Frederick Weller as a cretinous pitcher, Kevin Carroll as Darren's pious best friend, James Yaegashi as a pitcher imported from Japan and Joe Lisi as the team's avuncular manager all have warm moments in which they transcend the artificial dimensions of their characters.
But ultimately, it's Mr. O'Hare who owns the evening. A lonely, emotionally constipated gay man whose life takes on meaning when he takes on Darren as a client, Mr. O'Hare's Mason becomes baseball's dream cheerleader. To see him bend and blossom before the mysteries of the game is a bit like watching Cary Grant, in his priggish mode, being thawed out by a madcap Katharine Hepburn in ''Bringing Up Baby.''
And what an enchanting and enchanted take on baseball Mr. Greenberg has created for Mason, both passionately personal and lyrically analytical. It's a sensibility that is so smart, raw and sincere all at once that you may find tears in your eyes in the first act as Mason describes the raptures of ''the home-run trot.''
There is also a moment in the second act that turns baseball into something like grand opera. The white light of night games floods the stage as the ensemble members act out an evocative baseball ballet, and Mr. O'Hare waxes into hallelujah-like paeans to the game. ''Maybe I've had a ridiculous life,'' he says, ''but this is one of its best nights.''
The scene is one of the most stirring on Broadway right now. It's an unconditional, all-American epiphany that, in these days of fretful ambivalence, is something to cherish.
When Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out opened downtown at the Public Theater last fall, it was an unlikely charmer. Though its most obvious topics were baseball and homosexuality, its broader themes, warmth and wit appealed to those who knew little about either subject, and made the play a natural for a Broadway transfer.
Curiously, the move to the major leagues has not enhanced its populist spirit. The Take Me Out that opened last week at the Walter Kerr Theatre has a sleeker, chillier feel than last year's intimate production. The bright lights and bustling dialogue that dazzled in a smaller setting are now too flashy at times, and at other points reveal flaws in Greenberg's impressive text.
The most obvious of these is the incredible extremes of both profundity and stupidity embodied by his characters. Darren Lemming, the handsome, half-black baseball star who comes out of the closet, is a veritable Dennis Miller in pinstripes, effortlessly tossing off quips and observations. And Kippy Sunderstrom, Darren's best buddy on the team, offers up eloquent insights with an ease any literature professor would envy.
In contrast, Shane Mungitt, the racist, homophobic ace pitcher who clashes with Darren, never met a word he couldn't mangle or misspell, and others appear similarly dim. That Greenberg, a born-again baseball fan, would romanticize Darren and Kippy is understandable, even endearing. But the playwright's cavalier mockery of the others is self-defeating. Imagine how much more provocative Take Me Out might have been had Shane, a trailer-trash stereotype clearly inspired by real-life lunkhead John Rocker, spoken lucidly, so his views couldn't be dismissed as a lack of intelligence.
But despite such weaknesses, and a nude scene that seems gratuitously long, Greenberg's play remains thoughtful and entertaining. It has retained much of its poignancy, too, thanks in part to a robust cast nimbly directed by Joe Mantello. Daniel Sunjata's charismatic Darren and Neal Huff's earnest Kippy are utterly convincing, and Frederick Weller manages to add dimension to Shane. Kevin Carroll, James Yaegashi and Robert M. Jimenez are funny and engaging in key supporting roles.
In some ways, the most telling character is one who watches the action from the bleachers. Mason Marzac, a mousy accountant who is transformed and liberated by baseball, obviously was modeled to some extent on Greenberg himself. Denis O'Hare plays the part a bit more flamboyantly than he did off-Broadway, but never so much that his moving vulnerability and joy are obscured.
Through his elation, we experience the sublime power that love in any form can hold, even for those not as blessed as Darren. And it's this message that makes Take Me Out a winner in the end.
Just in time for spring training, Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out" has been called up to the Major League. Installed at the Walter Kerr Theater after its sellout fall run at the Public, Joe Mantello's staging has wisely shed some fat -- including one of its previous two intermissions -- and looks trim and healthy in its Broadway pinstripes. In a season notably short on new plays, it should draw audiences intrigued by the headline-grabbing concept: Baseball Star Comes Out! But the new crispness serves to underscore both the evening's pleasures and its disappointments. It is clearer than ever that "Take Me Out" is really not one but two plays: a heady, heartfelt and enormously appealing romance spliced into a sprawling comedy that is a bit smudged by glibness and contrivance.
The romance is not between a man and a woman, or even two men, as one might expect, but between a man and his new-found obsession. The man is a mousy accountant named Mason Marzac, who is brought to infinitely lovable life by Denis O'Hare, an underappreciated stage stalwart who happily hits one out of the park here. Marzac is somewhat flimsily appended to the play's plot: He's hired by the glittering, Derek Jeter-esque Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata), star player of the Empires (read Yankees), to sort out his finances shortly after Lemming makes sports history by casually announcing his homosexuality during a press conference.
The repercussions of this revelation serve to drive the play around bases sometimes located rather far afield. Sexual anxiety blooms like fungus in the shower room. The winning team's grasp on the pennant starts to slip. The redneck closer who keeps the team afloat spouts off to reporters with a stream of offensive slurs and is promptly suspended. Darren's angry reaction to the pitcher's reinstatement culminates in a tragic incident on the field that brings things to an overheated, less-than-credible climax.
But the most significant development, in terms of the evening's entertainment value, takes place offstage, when Marzac, a gay man who confesses to a lifetime lack of interest in sports, turns on ESPN to get a look at his heroic new client. Thus is born one of the great love stories of the contemporary stage, between a nebbishy gay man and the game of baseball. In a series of monologues written with the percipience, wit and eloquence that always come easily to Greenberg, Marzac lets us know how much the game comes to mean to him -- and what it could mean to all of us and, possibly, to the future of mankind, if only we'd let it.
You certainly don't have to be a baseball fan to get caught up in the woozy rapture that positively radiates from O'Hare as he speaks of the "nuances and grace notes of the game" and its metaphorical meanings: "Baseball is better than democracy," he announces, breathlessly but sternly, "because unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss … so that baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades." Even those in the audience who wouldn't know a fly ball from a fur ball will be moved by the emotional efflorescence taking place inside this man, which O'Hare renders with such amusing and affecting precision: It's like watching someone who has walked through life in a shadow suddenly emerge into the sunlight. A sad sack who has always felt on the outside of life -- "I don't really have a community. Or, more precisely, the community won't really have me," he jokes -- Mason is transformed from a chronic wallflower to a man in a permanent state of puppy love.
Of course it is not just O'Hare's enchanting performance that makes Mason stand out so vividly from the fabric of the play. Animating a character obviously modeled on himself (Greenberg has confessed to the same sort of religious conversion Mason undergoes), Greenberg is writing from the heart, not the head, as he is elsewhere in the evening. The audience responds not just to the performance but to the truth of the feeling in the writing itself.
Unfortunately, that kind of truth -- not to mention some other kinds -- is largely missing from long stretches of the play, although some helpful trimming has been done (no need to consult the dictionary for the definition of "sodality"). Greenberg has a tendency to imbue too many of his characters with the intelligence and acerbic eloquence that sits easily on Mason but seems suspect when it's handed out in similar doses to both Lemming and his best pal on the team, the thoughtful Kippy Sunderstrom (played with a neat, gentle touch by Neal Huff, who rather resembles vet pitcher David Cone, Greenberg's apparent model).
For comic purposes, most of the other players on the team are contrastingly rendered as dolts, variously benign (Kohl Sudduth's soft-hearted Jason Chenier) or malignant (Frederick Weller's absurdly thick-headed Shane Mungitt, the pitcher whose conflict with Darren is at the core of the plot).
For the Broadway transfer, Mantello has nicely fine-tuned the work of his excellent cast, intact but for the addition of "Sex and the City's" David Eigenberg (Steve, of the single testicle?) in a deft turn as a player unhinged by the new meaning of his nakedness in the locker room. But the actors cannot disguise the synthetic nature of much of the dialogue. Too often it seems driven by a relentless search for continual comic payoffs rather than the actual truth of the intriguing situation Greenberg has chosen to examine. And while Sunjata gives an appealing, confident and often sensitive performance as the man at the calm center of the storm he's kicked up, Darren remains something of an emotional cipher; the character and his motivations never really come into focus.
But the polished performances, to say nothing of the generous doses of beefcake and the steady stream of clever dialogue, will keep audiences reasonably entertained whenever the object of the play's most intense affection -- O'Hare's Mr. Marzac -- is absent. Indeed, the love story between Mason and his game is matched only by the one between the audience and the performer onstage. Perhaps never in my theatergoing experience have I experienced such an overwhelming -- and spontaneous -- surge of affection sent across the footlights.
Delectation is the only word for it: The audience seems to collectively sit forward and beam in delighted sympathy whenever O'Hare is onstage, slurring out his self-deprecating asides with a kind of mournful glee, or lecturing us on the game's intricacies with the heedlessness of a crazed poetry professor unafraid to look foolish as he emotes his way through a passage of Wordsworth. Watching an actor of such great gifts connect so deeply and so instantly with a theater full of people turns this appealing but often synthetic evening at the theater into a singular, and peculiarly touching, experience.