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Daniel Sunjata is up at bat in Take Me Out
(Photo: Mark Douet)
Baseball has just had a layer of pungent icing slathered on the cake that was last week's averted strike. It's Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg's part valentine, part poison-pen letter to the national pastime. If this thoughtful, acerbic, and frequently impassioned work isn't quite the dramatic equivalent of a home run with the bases loaded, it's at least a triple that drives in multiple runs and raises the prolific playwright's batting average to well over .400. Though Greenberg can't pocket the MVP award for his services at season's end, he'll be among those considered for the Pulitzer Prize as a result of what he uses baseball to say about intolerance and the dark ends to which it often irrevocably leads.

But enough of the congratulatory metaphors, relating to baseball and otherwise -- especially since, as Greenberg unfurls his tragicomedy, he has so much fun mocking both those who insist on seeing the sport as a metaphor for various things and those, often the players themselves, who resist seeing it as anything other than a well-paying job. Actually, when listened to carefully, Take Me Out has plenty to say about how the game's free-agent policy has altered the meaning of teamwork. Whereas "team" once implied a group of people blending, with some humility, their individual strengths in search of a common goal, Greenberg understands that, nowadays, "team" -- whether baseball, corporate, or government -- too often means a group of rich guys stifling their differences and prejudices to make themselves even richer.

To register his battery of points, the playwright sends out the biracial superhero Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata), who bears a certain resemblance to the Yankees' Derek Jeter and whose last name is deliberately chosen to suggest self-destructive urges. As the play gets underway, Lemming -- with his story told mostly in flashy flashback by intellectual teammate Kippy Sunderstrom (Neal Huff) -- informs the media that he's gay and triggers a series of irreversibly damaging repercussions. The immediate effect in the locker room of the Empires (that's what the team is called) is one of nervous acceptance, especially as played out in the first of the work's two nicely integrated, full-frontal-nude shower scenes.

Tension both in and out of the showers is raised a couple of tense notches when a John Rocker-like relief pitcher named Shane Mungit (Frederick Weller) is brought up from the minors to stem a losing streak. Flak hits the fan and the fans as, unburdening himself of opinions on joining the majors, Mungit alerts the press that "I don't mind the colored people, the gooks an' the spics an' the coons an' like that. But, every night, t'have ta take a shower with a faggot!?"

Though Mungit is ousted for a time, he's brought back -- despite Lemming's angry objections -- to quell another spate of loses. But this compulsive shower-taker only hits the field after a second shower scene during which Lemming, soaping up nearby, cracks that "cleanliness is next to godliness" and then indulges in some cruel horseplay. When the furious Mungit has suited up and assumes the mound, he cannonballs a first pitch that becomes a literal representation of the destruction Greenberg sees as the outcome of racial bias. The batter whom Mungit faces is Davey Battle (Kevin Carroll), who happens to be Lemming's closest friend, although the pals have just tangled over the advisability of Lemming's having revealed his homosexuality.

To counterbalance the dire developments he's set in unstoppable motion, the playwright does something of enormous appeal. A recent convert to baseball, Greenberg says he wrote this play because he couldn't think about anything else; he plops himself in the middle of the action in the person of Mason Marzac (Dennis O'Hare), an accountant newly in charge of Lemming's business affairs. Marzac is a homosexual who lives in Manhattan's famously gay Chelsea but feels removed from it. Looking to attach himself somewhere, he discovers baseball and goes quickly from conscientiously learning about it to adoring it so much that he keeps launching into odes on the sport. A couple of his speeches, though slyly comic, contain ruminations on baseball that rank with the prose of longtime enthusiasts like Ring Lardner, Roger Angell, and Philip Roth. "While conservatives tell you, 'Leave things alone and no one will lose,'" Marzac waxes, "and liberals tell you, 'Interfere a lot and no one will lose,' baseball says: 'Someone will lose.' Not only says it, insists on it! So that baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades. Evades and embodies. Democracy is lovely, but baseball's more mature." Say hey!

Having deftly composed a play that both excoriates and glorifies baseball and its potential for reflecting the torments and joys of the American soul, Greenberg does stumble repeatedly -- so much so that the viewer may have to remind himself or herself repeatedly that a masterful dramatist is at work. To begin with, Lemming, while seeming to be the play's focal figure, is curiously one-note; well, maybe three-note. Talking to Kippy early on, he says, "If I'm gonna have sex -- and I am, because I'm young and rich and famous and talented and handsome, so it's a law -- I'd rather do it with a guy. But when all is said and done, Kippy, I'd rather just play ball." As it turns out, there is no discussion or indication of Lemming having sex during the play. In so denying his protagonist a romantic life, Greenberg gives himself an easy pass -- a pass that he compounds by never indicating more than vaguely what the response from the Empires' public has been to Lemming's revelation. (A recent episode of TV's Arliss dealt with the subject of a ballplayer's coming out more forthrightly.) Among Greenberg's other lapses are a couple of teammates, including the dirty-mouthed but scrubbed-bodied Mungit, who are so dumb that their brains don't seem to add up to the size of a ping-pong ball, let alone a hardball.

Mason, jarred:
Denis O'Hare in Take Me Out
(Photo: Mark Douet)
The production presided over by the limitlessly gifted director Joe Mantello is flawless. Sunjata is the very emblem of heroic beefcake; apparently, he can't give the wrong curve to a line of dialogue or stand at a bad angle. Frederick Weller's Shane Mungit stays comfortably on the right side of credible as a man who's good with a fast ball but bad with fast talk. Neal Huff is wily as a top-flight ball player who went to college on an academic scholarship. Standing in for Greenberg, Denis O'Hare does what he always does: steals scenes the way the Padres' Kevin McReynolds used to steal bases. The clumsy joy he exudes as a fellow who has not only found himself a new idol but has befriended him is enough to make any baseball hold-out board the next train to Yankee Stadium. The other players -- Kevin Carroll, Dominic Fumusa, Gene Gabriel, Robert M. Jimenez, Joe Lisi, Kohl Sudduth, and James Yaegashi -- demonstrate the kind of teamwork that the Empires themselves are lacking.

Same's true of the design team -- Scott Pask (sets), Jess Goldstein (the costumer whose mournful black-and-white uniforms extend to black mitts), Kevin Adams (lighting), and, especially, sound designer Janet Kalas, who makes sure that a multitude of unseen balls are heard being snagged or blasted into the stands.

Greenberg's brilliant title is lifted, of course, from baseball's anthem, and refers to at least three of the play's cogent events. Take Me Out? Take it in.

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