Plays don’t come much more deeply and thoroughly American than Richard Greenberg’s punningly titled “Take Me Out,” which is, astonishingly, having its world preem at London’s Donmar Warehouse prior to a wholesale transfer next month to Off Broadway’s Public Theater. On the other hand, if the United States can make real progress at this year’s World Cup, an event celebrating a sport with which virtually every country in the world except America is obsessed, perhaps the time is right to debut in England Greenberg’s paean to baseball as a fulcrum for the ideological, sexual and racial complexities of the good ol’ US of A in our own troubled times.
Can our national pastime bear such metaphoric weight? I don’t see why not, especially as spread across three leisurely, intermittently lovely acts in a production by Joe Mantello that offers an expert cast to compensate for those moments when the script strikes out. (Baseball is a game made up of three and multiples of three, e.g., nine innings, so it seems natural that “Take Me Out” should be that modern-day rarity, a three-act play.) Capping the Donmar’s five-strong season of American plays, “Take Me Out” takes its audience down a blind alley or two before delivering a moment of pure ecstasy accompanying the blissful yearning of the final line.
That remark is spoken by the invaluable Denis O’Hare, playing Mason Marzac, the gay business manager of a biracial superstar centerfielder, Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata), who has recently come out, much to the distress (or not) of his fellow players on a fictitious New York team called the Empires. And as authorial surrogate O’Hare voices his longing for a sport about to embark on its seasonal hiatus, “Take Me Out” tugs at the heart of anyone who has ever harbored a deep, not always easily voiced passion.
As busy a dramatist as America at present appears to have (this is the fourth Greenberg play I’ve seen in eight months), “Take Me Out” isn’t quite the radical departure that it might seem on the surface, given the author’s continued penchant for irony and verbal sophistication that has endeared him to the British: His “Three Days of Rain” had two sellout runs at the Donmar before becoming an Olivier nominee for best play. Ballplayers could be forgiven for not sounding like Wildean quipsters, and Greenberg gets perhaps more mileage than is necessary from offering up during “Take Me Out” not one but two flat-out dimwits for ready-made audience yocks. (One, admittedly, lays bare a frighteningly demonic component to his apparent doltishness.)
And yet, the incomprehension of, say, newly recruited catcher Jason Chenier (Kohl Sudduth) pales next to the almost self-conscious articulacy of teammates who talk about being “passionate about passion” one minute, presuming presumptuousness the next. (Oddly for a writer as fastidious as Greenberg, he uses “paradigm” in the second act where “paradox” would seem the right word, but hey … ) That such wordplay doesn’t become wearing is due to a narrative structure containing a pair of end-of-act revelations to get us through the two intermissions. Moment by moment, it may not be clear where “Take Me Out” is headed, but the journey there is never boring.
In some ways, it’s easiest to define what the play is not — namely, a facile romance between ballplayers emboldened to come out. There’s an intentionally chilly and remote aspect to Sunjata’s determinedly solitary Lemming. Nor is the chaos caused by his disclosure anywhere near the sum total of a plot that encompasses bigotry, murder, linguistic confusion and even the whimsy of God before alighting on the all-encompassing aspect of baseball as an emblem of democracy. (And unlike the soured democracy of the world we inhabit, “Take Me Out” argues that baseball at least makes room for hope.)
The play would benefit from both pruning and narrative streamlining before traveling to New York. But even in its present form, it’s hard to imagine Greenberg’s troubled utopia better realized than by designer Scott Pask, already a proven master of the Donmar via his astonishing design at this address for “Tales From Hollywood.” Not all the company can erase the feeling at times that we’re watching a male locker-room version of “The Women,” albeit with more towel-snapping and shower scenes. But Sunjata’s artful blend of arrogance and charisma is deftly paired off against the slow-to-unfold scariness of Frederick Weller, playing the centerfielder’s take-no-prisoners nemesis. And cast as two witnesses to events that even their love of language can’t quite field, O’Hare and Neal Huff in turn take a London audience out of itself to somewhere almost transcendent, where the game — one hopes against hope — can only be good.