Fans of baseball or beefcake — or fans of baseball and beefcake — will find plenty to savor at “Take Me Out,” Richard Greenberg’s new play about a cocky Major League star who causes a major ruckus by announcing his homosexuality. Admirers of Greenberg, too, will find the playwright’s sharp-witted eloquence in top form here. But the play, which was generally cheered at its Donmar Warehouse premiere by the London critics — not always a charitable bunch when it comes to American plays — may ultimately find a less enthusiastic reception on its home field. To his credit, Greenberg has not written a generic coming-out comedy transplanted to the locker room, but the admirably unsentimental “Take Me Out” is painfully talky and discursive, even in Joe Mantello’s lively staging (which includes, as reported, generous doses of full frontal nudity). And yet the play is at its best when it’s at its talkiest: Greenberg’s intelligent, intriguing riffs on the beauties of baseball are more beguiling than his disappointingly hollow central character, not to mention his unconvincing and labored plot.
The center fielder at the center of controversy is Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata), the telegenic, highly paid marquee star of the Empires, a team not so loosely based on the Yankees. (A few clues: The trimming of Scott Pask’s set matches the architecture of Yankee Stadium; the mixed-race Lemming is clearly a Derek Jeter type; and if you squint, Joe Lisi, who plays the team manager “famed for his personal skills — toughness tempered by generosity,” could be Joe Torre.) In the play’s opening moments we witness the press confab at which Darren goes public with his sexuality, in decidedly blithe style: “I hope this sends a message that it’s OK. … Any young man, creed, whatever, can go out there and become a ball player. Or an interior decorator.”
A funny line, to be sure, but indicative of Greenberg’s tendency throughout the play to sacrifice authenticity when either a laugh or an interesting observation is at stake. Indeed, the playwright’s voice often can be heard talking through his characters, which isn’t so disconcerting in the case of Denis O’Hare’s thoroughly wonderful performance as Mason Marzac, Darren’s self-deprecating, sad-sack gay business manager, who is ultimately the most engaging and convincingly drawn character in the play. But when ball players begin making observations about a “no longer submerged erotic presence in a male sodality,” we may no longer be in the ballpark, as it were, of reality. Theatergoers expecting an earnest exploration of the ramifications of a story yanked from tomorrow’s headlines will be disappointed to find that Greenberg has written instead a highly literate fable that goes its own chatty way with some of the same insular self-regard that marks the play’s hero.
Accordingly, Greenberg seems to have divided the team into the hyper-smart and articulate, including Darren and his team pal Kippy Sunderland (Neal Huff), our sometime narrator, and the scarcely sentient, among whom the ace closer Shane Mungit (Frederick Weller) figures most significantly. The mullet-headed Mungit, not so loosely based on the infamous John Rocker (even if he looks more like Randy Johnson), causes his own uproar when he observes during an interview that it’s easy enough to hang with “the gooks an’ the spics an’ the coons,” but taking a shower with a “faggot” is something else entirely.
Mungit is quickly suspended, but he’s reinstated when the team goes into a dangerous slump — to the outrage of Darren, who complains to manager Skip, “This just isn’t right.” It’s at this point that Greenberg’s vague characterization of Darren becomes troublesome. Hitherto Darren had shrugged off the slights and sniggers that followed his revelation, secure in his superiority. Indeed, a few scenes back he was expressing dismay at all the “compassion” that came his way in the wake of Mungit’s outburst. So whence the sudden sensitivity, racial or otherwise?
There is a suggestion that Darren is motivated by a cynical desire to outshine the rest of his teammates, but Darren’s soul here and indeed throughout the play is entirely opaque, through no fault of Sunjata, who perfectly captures the suave arrogance and innate charisma of the character as written. It’s nice that Greenberg hasn’t fallen into the trap of depicting a gay character engaged in the familiar tortured wrestlings with insecurity or hypersensitivity. And there are patches of dialogue sprinkled throughout the play that emphasize the complexities of identity and the painful way we struggle toward self-knowledge. But such thematic point-making can’t really make up for the lack of a convincingly drawn central character. As it is, Darren Lemming comes across mostly as a mass of eloquent hot air in a sexy, pinstriped package.
As a result, while free of sentimentality, the play is almost free of sentiment, too, except when it comes to the subject of the game itself. And it’s here that “Take Me Out” actually does captivate. It may be hard to believe O’Hare’s Mason could transform himself in a matter of two months from a baseball ignoramus to a statistically obsessed rhapsodist, but hearing him pontificate about the game as a vessel of meaning in a meaningless world, and a means of salvation for the unhappy or disappointed, you tend to forget this and the play’s other inconsistencies.
As played with exuberant relish by O’Hare, Mason is our painfully funny, linguistically gifted tour guide to both the inner meanings and outer thrills of baseball. Whether explaining that the game “achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades,” or describing the inspiring symbolism of the “home-run trot,” or pleading with Darren not to forsake the game because “life is so tiny, so daily, and you take me out of it” into a realm where the smallest action can profoundly change the course of events, Mason, which is to say Greenberg, intoxicates us with his words in the same way he’s intoxicated by the game. Here at least, the play achieves a lyrical power to match the beauty of — well, depending on your tastes, either a sublime piece of music or an exquisitely turned double play. Or both.