Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg's Tony-winning drama now playing at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, tells a "What if?" story. Several, in fact. What if a major league baseball player--not just any player but a superstar--announces in the middle of a winning season that he's gay? And what if the team needs a pitcher, and the one they bring up from the minors is a homo-hating hick with a killer fastball and a mouth like John Rocker? And what if another player--and not just any player but the superstar's best friend on a rival team--dies in questionable circumstances during a game?
This is a play that asks a lot of questions, not all of which are answered to the audience's satisfaction by the end. There are Big Messages, too, about tolerance and narcissism, male sexuality and the arrogance inherent in success as a professional athlete. Another question looms even larger over this piece, although it isn't one the playwright asks: What if this were a movie instead of a three-act play?
So much of Take Me Out, particularly under Terry Martin's direction at WaterTower, borrows cinematic techniques--close-ups, narration, smash-cuts, cross-cuts, slow motion, fade-outs and fade-ins--that it makes a viewer feel cheated out of what might have been a fuller and more visually compelling experience were it to be played on the big screen. Set mostly in the locker room of a team called the Empires (read: Yankees), the production must resort to silly, stylized pantomime choreography for the game-highlight sequences and too often leaves a single actor stranded in a shaky spotlight to narrate plot points directly to the audience. It also lacks the single most important element any good baseball saga requires: a wide pan around a sold-out stadium on game day.
Playwright Greenberg writes a poetic sentence, and Take Me Out is his ode to America's pastime as well as his indictment against the institutional homophobia that keeps some professional athletes in the closet. But for all of its noble, elegiac wordplay, topical issues and shocking turns, his play ultimately feels awkward and too confined by the conventions of live theater.
The very gimmick that helped make the play a Broadway hit--muscle-bound naked actors soaping up in two shower sequences--titillates but distracts. You can't help but wonder how they got working plumbing on the set and if the water is warm enough to prevent visible shrinkage (the boys towel off and dress in full view). Long after the homoerotic shower scene has ended, you can still hear the water gurgling, washing any concentration on the action at hand down the drain with it.
The problems with the play itself are only magnified by some of the performances in WaterTower's production. That leading role, a Derek Jeter-like slugger named Darren Lemming, needs real star quality in its actor, and Butch Anderson bats about .300 there. Lemming's no dummy, except when it comes to his naïveté about how being out will affect his status with his peers. He's a show-off and a smart aleck, but he's truly intelligent, given to long conversational warm-ups with the Empires' resident intellectual, shortstop Kippy Sunderstrom (Christopher Illing). In those scenes, Anderson, who bears a striking resemblance to Jeter, leaves the impression that he's not quite as bright as the man he's portraying. Anderson's handsome but a bit of a lunk. He also rushes his lines through terribly mushy diction. As Kippy, Illing, one of three young Equity actors WaterTower imported from New York for this show, out-acts him right back to the bleachers.
In the role of slow-witted pitcher Shane Mungitt, Dallas actor Clay Yocum (who gave one of last year's most gripping performances in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at the Bath House) is so strong he shifts the weight of the play away from the hero. We're supposed to hate Mungitt, a Neanderthal who throws like a demon and who causes an uproar when someone hands him a microphone after a game and, in a halting drawl, he starts talking about his teammates as "the gooks an' the spics an' the coons an' like 'at," adding that he's not at all pleased "every night t' have'ta shower with a faggot."
Yocum acts with a raw intensity that feels dangerously close to psychosis. Head shaved smooth as an onion, he's all quivering nerve endings but still manages to be believable and even a bit heartbreaking as an uneducated athlete who doesn't understand why anything he's said or done is wrong. He knows one thing, how to throw a baseball, and that should be enough.
So that's two of the too-many interwoven story lines that get batted around during the three hours of Take Me Out. We also meet Mason Marzac (Ted Wold), a swishy-sweet gay financial advisor who's assigned to invest Darren's millions. On first sight, he falls in love with the player; only later does he fall in love with the game. And it's through "Mars," as Darren dubs him, that we get two long soliloquies about the meaning of baseball.
"Baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society," says Mars in a solo second-act reverie. Then, "Baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades. Evades and embodies. Democracy is lovely, but baseball's more mature." Sounds good, doesn't it? But what in the name of Mickey Mantle does it really mean?
Then there's Davey Battle (Darius Warren), Darren's longtime friend and MLB rival. They have a locker room blowout over the gay thing that's actually played out in a flashback--more film techniques again.
One of the nicest moments in Take Me Out is a monologue by the team's lone Japanese player, a pitcher named Takeshi Kawabata (Lanny Joon, another of the fine NYC imports), explaining why he fired his translator. Unable to speak or understand English, he can block out extraneous chatter and concentrate solely on his task on the mound. This tiny plot thread about a player choosing to isolate himself from the team (hello, Barry Bonds) holds more dramatic intrigue than the Darren Lemming story.
By act three, the Big Questions have all been asked and asked again. We've heard speech after speech about the beauty and timelessness of Abner Doubleday's great invention. But Greenberg, it turns out, doesn't have anything fresh or definitive to say about any of it, not the intolerance or the homophobia or what it's like to be a star athlete who's out and still lonely because his ego doesn't let him mix with mere mortals like the fey finance guy. It's even hinted at more than once that Darren's not the only gay player on the team, but nothing's made of that. We hardly get to know most of the other players, except to find out that the married ones have three kids because "baseball's a game of threes."
Baseball, wrote former announcer Ernie Harwell, is ballet without music, drama without words. Take Me Out, with its multiple story arcs and endless stream of monologues, has plenty of words, just not enough game.
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