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Take Me Out

Daniel Sunjata and Neal Huff
(background) in Take Me Out
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Tracking Take Me Out -- Richard Greenberg's discussion of baseball as intoxicating national sport and all-purpose metaphor -- from its initial production at London's Donmar Warehouse through its presentation at the Public Theater to its Broadway transfer is like following a favorite team through the regular season, then to the play-offs and, ultimately, the World Series. It's no shock when the dream team comes through its final test victoriously, but along the way there are enough bobbled balls in the outfield and missed slides into third to shake up your beliefs.

Now that the prolific Greenberg's most authoritative opus has arrived on the Great White Way, adding strong Tony prospects to its already likely Pulitzer Prize nod (unless Stephen Adly Guirgis's Out Lady of 121st Street edges past it), Take Me Out gives the impression of being akin to The Empires (read Yankees), the team on which it focuses: The outfit prevails because, in the end, its superstar elements outweigh its drawbacks. Functioning as a team, the cast and the creative squad give about 105 percent of the 110 percent George Steinbrenner might demand in another context.

When a play does its Broadway tryout tour in such a conspicuous manner, those charting its progress want to know how it's changed for the better and how for the worse. [Ed. Note: click here to read David Finkle's review of the Public Theater production.] One readjustment is particularly substantive, since the play in both previous incarnations was done with the audience on three sides of the stage and with the cast often entering and exiting through aisles or so-called voms (the entrances from below the audience in the Public's Anspacher Theater). Director Joe Mantello, who has been with this work from the outset, may have considered his biggest task to be reconfiguring the action for a proscenium stage. He's done it seemingly with one hand tied behind his back. The segments when the cast members play ball --- complete with Janet Kalas's resonant ballpark sound effects and Kevin Adams stadium lighting, and clad in Jess Goldstein's black-and-white uniforms -- are just as thrillingly choreographed as before.

Daniel Sunjata, Neal Huff, and Frederick Weller
in Take Me Out
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The other big change is that what used to be a three-act play and used to jibe with the baseball-as-a-game-of-threes-and-multiples-of-three theme is now being performed in two acts. That's the way producers want things these days, despite Greenberg's having assiduously written dramatic finishes for the first and second acts as originally conceived (and despite the fact that copies of the manuscript handed to reviewers indicate three acts). Oh, well -- taking the edge off the second-act climax by proceeding to Act Three after a brief pause rather than an intermission is compensated for by the fact that the play now seems tighter and more tense. The momentum that gathers as Take Me Out hurtles towards its final inning -- er, denouement -- is now uninterrupted.

Additional alterations made by Greenberg are subtle. He seems to have added laughs; was the play ever as funny as it is now? He's tweaked lines and shifted the sequence of at least two scenes. These revisions don't seem to improve the script significantly or weaken what it has to say about the interaction of the individual with the group and what resulting compromises must be made for the greater good, whether in team sports or broader contexts. Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata), an outfielder of heroic dimensions and self-destructive inclinations (note his surname), starts the "mess" -- as narrator Kippy Sunderstrom (the engaging Neal Huff) terms it -- when he informs the press that he's gay. Although his teammates are uncomfortable for reasons that the intellectual Sunderstrom explicates in one of the show's two full-frontal shower scenes, nothing explosive happens right off the bat, so to speak.

The stakes rise when relief pitcher and ingrained bigot Shane Mungitt (Frederick Weller, letter-perfect) is brought up from the minors and declares before microphones in a John Rocker-like statement, "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!?" Banned from play for a short time, Mungitt apparently recants his remark in a published letter and is invited to rejoin the team. When he shows up, Lemming taunts him in the second of the play's bold yet utterly natural shower scenes. He prankishly puts the make on Mungitt and then has to wonder about his responsibility for the tragic consequences when pitcher Mungitt faces Davey Battle (Kevin Carroll), Lemming's best friend and a member of a rival team, on the diamond.

While Greenberg magnificently probes the national pastime for lessons about life in America today, he still hasn't corrected some of the play's shortcomings. Lemming remains a sullen character who's self-assured to a fault, a condition that limits the handsome Daniel Sunjata's appeal. Greenberg might have avoided the character's chilly quality had he introduced a boyfriend for him; possibly fearing that this would truly alienate audiences, he allows Lemming to admit to the love that dares not speak its name but not to act upon it. Sunjata has, though, found in his second and last scene with Battle a moment where he shows a hurt he hadn't previously uncovered in the role.

Denis O’Hare in Take Me Out
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Also, in depicting the mix of races and I.Q. levels loose in the locker-room (a black box designed by Scott Pask), Greenberg turns two of the players, Jason Chenier (Kohl Sudduth) and Toddy Koovitz (David Eigenberg, new to the cast) into near imbeciles. Or maybe the actors aren't doing enough to leaven the stereotyping -- especially not Eigenberg, who's come from Sex and the City to show his sex to the city.

Greenberg's complete success is Mason Marzac, a gay Chelsea accountant who's been handed Lemming's portfolio and, deciding he'd better learn about his client's occupation, finds himself head over heels in love with it. Marzac is based on Greenberg, who maintains that he wrote this play because he could think only about baseball; the character is played by Denis O'Hare, who's been sparking New York productions for a number of years and apparently realizes that this is a once-in-a-lifetime role. The inventive O'Hare is at the top of his form; during two speeches to the audience, he walks off with the play. When the actors line up for the curtain call and then bow one by one, O'Hare has had to be placed last because the response to him significantly overshadows the responses to everyone else. His performance is a major reason why now, as much or more than ever, Take Me Out is worth taking in.