Innings, outings: Richard Greenberg's baseball coming-out drama Take Me Out may prove to be a hit, but the play's no home run.
A black gay major-league baseball player comes out at the height of his stardom: Now there's something we'd all like to see happen, which is the biggest thing Richard Greenberg's play on the subject has going for it. Take Me Out focuses on Darren Lemming (played by Daniel Sunjata), the young, handsome, heavy-hitting center fielder for the New York Empires who abruptly and casually declares his homosexuality at a press conference.
Darren has been raised by his white father and black mother to a state of supreme self-confidence, with a sense of entitlement and invincibility. He has no self-esteem issues. Others see him as someone who has never suffered, and he does not disagree. His coming-out has consequences: Suddenly, his teammates feel self-conscious about being naked in the locker room; a redneck pitcher airs racist and homophobic remarks that lead to his suspension (think John Rocker); and the revelation alienates Darren's black best friend, Davey Battle (Kevin Carroll), a star player on another baseball team who's a religious family man. But to Darren, other people's discomfort with his homosexuality is their problem, not his.
The play is narrated by Kippy Sunderstrom (Neal Huff), Darren's closest friend on the team, who has a reputation as the most intelligent man in baseball and serves as the author's spokesman in ruminating about the sociopolitical impact of Darren's coming-out. Meanwhile, an extended rhapsodic ode to the joys of baseball issues forth from the unlikely poetic heart of Mason Marzac (Denis O'Hare), the nerdy gay accountant who undergoes a conversion to America's favorite sport when he becomes Darren's money manager.
A prolific playwright with an undeniable flair for dramatic situations and literary language, Greenberg clearly wants Take Me Out to be an epic for the ages--part essay on baseball and homosexuality as incompatible arenas of American masculinity; part contemporary Greek tragedy, with Darren as the hero whose hubris leads to his downfall, Kippy as the messenger, and Mason as the chorus. But the play doesn't live up to its ambitions. Instead, Greenberg stays in the shallower waters of melodrama. He scrambles the chronology of the storytelling to maximize suspense and to highlight sensational conflicts, clearly signaling to the audience who the good guys and the bad guys are, dispelling the violent tensions of the play with an ending that soothes with the reminder that a new baseball season begins next spring.
This provocative play comes jam-packed with unexamined assumptions (Southerners are "stoopid"; homophobia exists only among ignorant hillbillies and religious blacks) and bogus arguments (baseball is better than democracy because it acknowledges loss--huh?) that a different production would invite the audience to question. But Brecht has never been big box office, so Joe Mantello's expert staging goes the opposite direction. It papers over the gaps in the play's logic and encourages agreement by keeping spectators dazzled and hyped-up at all times. Although his character's coming-out bears no resemblance to that of any real-life celebrity, Sunjata plays all of Darren's inconsistencies as if they added up. And the always terrific O'Hare does an astonishing job of making a fully rounded figure out of what could have been a Paul Lynde-like turn, the fag as comic relief.
In Mantello's hands, Take Me Out is a crowd-pleaser that may well move to Broadway and be a big hit. That may not be a service to the playwright, though, because it comes across as a truthless fairy tale whose action bears little resemblance to recognizable human behavior.
Shewey writes on theater for The New York Times.