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Never mind the half-dozen naked Major Leaguers fumbling nervously for that bar of soap at the back of the stage: Richard Greenberg wants to talk to you about communication.
No, really. Take Me Out, that celebrated love letter to America’s pastime and to the all-American-male physique, touches far more than a piddling four bases in its brisk 2-hours-20, during which the nominal focus is on a superstar baseballer and the team he trips up when he steps out of the closet. Athlete role-modeling, political corrections, locker-room homophobia (and the sublimated homoerotics bound up therewith), pro-sports salary madness, gay-ghetto conformity, even the mathematical purity of baseball—all these and more get either glanced at or gazed thoughtfully upon in Greenberg’s nonthreateningly thinky, unapologetically talky, uncommonly entertaining Tony winner.
But the play, once you get past its dazzlingly crafted surfaces and its acutely perceptive asides, comes down to one intense exchange between the redneck pitcher who’s had the most trouble with his teammate’s revelation and the unusually articulate shortstop who’s trying to be everybody’s best friend: Why, asks the mullet-wearin’, mustachioed Ozarks refugee in a string of halting monosyllables, does everybody keep asking what was in his head when he threw the pitch that shattered his team’s unity and his own reputation?
“Because known things,” replies the Stanford-educated star infielder, “are bearable in a way that unknown things are not.” Oh, sure—in the abstract. But when Tug Coker’s appealingly earnest Kippy Sunderstrom fields that ball in Kirk Jackson’s swift and seamless production for the Studio Theatre, you know in your bones that he’s wrong, wrong, wrong: Every wry twist, every ludicrous malapropism, every ruefully recognizable home truth in Take Me Out points to the certainty that Greenberg sees as much peril as promise in his characters’ attempts to understand one another.
Understanding, intriguingly enough, isn’t what M.D. Walton’s Darren Lemming expects when he makes the declaration that sets off the event chain that culminates with that question. Darren’s a pop-culture hero in the Derek Jeter/Tiger Woods mold, a biracial star so gifted and so seemingly unconflicted that “even in baseball, one of the few realms of American life in which people of color are routinely adulated by people of pallor, he was something special: a black man who had obviously never suffered.” But that’s a blessing with baggage, it turns out: Darren’s grace on the field and his confidence on the street are rooted in a self-assurance so absolute that it tips over into arrogance. “Now I’m human?” he bristles when Kippy suggests that the public furor over his coming out might have dimmed some of his godlike aura. “Isn’t that a demotion?” It’s tough work hanging a play on a hero who’s ultimately revealed as a little lost, even a little unlikable there on his own personal Olympus, and the fact that you don’t feel much for his loneliness at play’s end has as much to do with the difficulties Greenberg created for himself as it does with Walton’s chilly if admittedly charismatic Darren.
Good, then, that there’s Coker’s affable Kippy, who’s every bit as important to the story. If Darren’s hubris is bound up with his athleticism, Kippy’s is rooted in his intelligence, in his sense that he’s just that much more perceptive than those around him. If only he could help them explain themselves to one other, he seems to believe, they’d all be ready to buy the world a Coke. He’s the narrator hand-holding us through the play’s not-quite-chronological narrative, the guy psychoanalyzing his teammates in the showers, noticing “how we turn from each other” in a locker room where full disclosure suddenly means twice as much, and “how, when we turn to each other, we maintain eye contact.” You do feel for Kippy (honestly, that name!) when his mediator’s instinct snarls him in the plot’s snowballing disaster, not least because Coker makes him every decent jock you ever idolized in high school—a gentle clown and a genuinely good guy, as pretty as he is perceptive and every inch one of the show’s three stars.
The third, indisputably, is Rick Foucheux’s Mason Marzac, the schlub of a money manager who takes on Darren’s portfolio and in the process develops a mad crush on both the celebrity and the sport. Endless ink has been spilled since Take Me Out’s London premiere on the observation that Mason is a stand-in for the author, who likewise got bit by the baseball bug midlife, and what makes the character and ultimately the play so endearing is the deliriously geeky passion author and character bring to sports fever. “I have come, with no little excitement, to understand that baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society,” Mason rhapsodizes in a three-and-a-half-page speech that goes on to ponder both the ennobling, egalitarian nature of a clockless game and the gorgeously unnecessary grandeur of the home-run trot. By the time Foucheux’s finished with that giddy monologue, you’ll be grinning as idiotically as he is. It’s a performance winning not just for the confidence of its verbal acrobatics and the perfection of its emotional pitch, but for the laugh-out-loud looseness Foucheux brings to his physical characterization; his Mason punctuates every observation with a gestural vocabulary of such shy, self-deprecatory, old-school-sissy limpwristedness that he might have stepped into the story directly from Gary Larson’s boneless-chicken ranch.
So skip the quibbles about the unlikely nexus of events at the play’s climax—though those plot threads do come together awfully neatly. And stifle the suspicions about stereotyping with permission—though those wrists, even attached to a character written by an out gay author, really are terribly limp. And overlook, if you can, the egregious slander of Southerners in general and Arkansas and Tennessee in particular—though Greenberg’s insufferably condescending portrait of that ignorant cracker pitcher, played with a positively epic scuzziness by the terrific Jake Suffian, is a classic example of why most people where I grew up despise northerners in general and New Yorkers in particular.
Dismiss these things, I say, because despite them, Take Me Out turns out to be every inch the delightful experience its hype led you not to expect, a play as smart and on the whole as well-built as it is entertaining. And because Studio’s supporting cast is nearly, if not quite, as solid as the trio at the story’s core, with particularly apt performances from Tom Quinn as the team’s gruff manager and Ikuma Isaac as the Japanese pitcher whose isolation mirrors Darren’s (and whose grace under pressure exceeds the star’s).
And, it’s a delight to report, because Jackson’s staging moves with a grace and precision worthy of the game Greenberg’s preaching so puckishly about; the fluid, almost balletic physicality of one beautifully choreographed inning, in fact, is far sexier than the shower sequences Logan Circle’s better homes have been buzzing about. In the harmony that sequence celebrates, and in the bridge Mason and Darren start to build across the gulf of culture and confidence that divides them when they first encounter each other, Greenberg locates a shred of hope: Lost as we sometimes are between the words we speak and the words we can’t find, we still manage to connect beautifully now and again.CP