Just in time for spring training, Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out” has been called up to the Major League. Installed at the Walter Kerr Theater after its sellout fall run at the Public, Joe Mantello’s staging has wisely shed some fat — including one of its previous two intermissions — and looks trim and healthy in its Broadway pinstripes. In a season notably short on new plays, it should draw audiences intrigued by the headline-grabbing concept: Baseball Star Comes Out! But the new crispness serves to underscore both the evening’s pleasures and its disappointments. It is clearer than ever that “Take Me Out” is really not one but two plays: a heady, heartfelt and enormously appealing romance spliced into a sprawling comedy that is a bit smudged by glibness and contrivance.
The romance is not between a man and a woman, or even two men, as one might expect, but between a man and his new-found obsession. The man is a mousy accountant named Mason Marzac, who is brought to infinitely lovable life by Denis O’Hare, an underappreciated stage stalwart who happily hits one out of the park here. Marzac is somewhat flimsily appended to the play’s plot: He’s hired by the glittering, Derek Jeter-esque Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata), star player of the Empires (read Yankees), to sort out his finances shortly after Lemming makes sports history by casually announcing his homosexuality during a press conference.
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The repercussions of this revelation serve to drive the play around bases sometimes located rather far afield. Sexual anxiety blooms like fungus in the shower room. The winning team’s grasp on the pennant starts to slip. The redneck closer who keeps the team afloat spouts off to reporters with a stream of offensive slurs and is promptly suspended. Darren’s angry reaction to the pitcher’s reinstatement culminates in a tragic incident on the field that brings things to an overheated, less-than-credible climax.
But the most significant development, in terms of the evening’s entertainment value, takes place offstage, when Marzac, a gay man who confesses to a lifetime lack of interest in sports, turns on ESPN to get a look at his heroic new client. Thus is born one of the great love stories of the contemporary stage, between a nebbishy gay man and the game of baseball. In a series of monologues written with the percipience, wit and eloquence that always come easily to Greenberg, Marzac lets us know how much the game comes to mean to him — and what it could mean to all of us and, possibly, to the future of mankind, if only we’d let it.
You certainly don’t have to be a baseball fan to get caught up in the woozy rapture that positively radiates from O’Hare as he speaks of the “nuances and grace notes of the game” and its metaphorical meanings: “Baseball is better than democracy,” he announces, breathlessly but sternly, “because unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss … so that baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades.” Even those in the audience who wouldn’t know a fly ball from a fur ball will be moved by the emotional efflorescence taking place inside this man, which O’Hare renders with such amusing and affecting precision: It’s like watching someone who has walked through life in a shadow suddenly emerge into the sunlight. A sad sack who has always felt on the outside of life — “I don’t really have a community. Or, more precisely, the community won’t really have me,” he jokes — Mason is transformed from a chronic wallflower to a man in a permanent state of puppy love.
Of course it is not just O’Hare’s enchanting performance that makes Mason stand out so vividly from the fabric of the play. Animating a character obviously modeled on himself (Greenberg has confessed to the same sort of religious conversion Mason undergoes), Greenberg is writing from the heart, not the head, as he is elsewhere in the evening. The audience responds not just to the performance but to the truth of the feeling in the writing itself.
Unfortunately, that kind of truth — not to mention some other kinds — is largely missing from long stretches of the play, although some helpful trimming has been done (no need to consult the dictionary for the definition of “sodality”). Greenberg has a tendency to imbue too many of his characters with the intelligence and acerbic eloquence that sits easily on Mason but seems suspect when it’s handed out in similar doses to both Lemming and his best pal on the team, the thoughtful Kippy Sunderstrom (played with a neat, gentle touch by Neal Huff, who rather resembles vet pitcher David Cone, Greenberg’s apparent model).
For comic purposes, most of the other players on the team are contrastingly rendered as dolts, variously benign (Kohl Sudduth’s soft-hearted Jason Chenier) or malignant (Frederick Weller’s absurdly thick-headed Shane Mungitt, the pitcher whose conflict with Darren is at the core of the plot).
For the Broadway transfer, Mantello has nicely fine-tuned the work of his excellent cast, intact but for the addition of “Sex and the City’s” David Eigenberg (Steve, of the single testicle?) in a deft turn as a player unhinged by the new meaning of his nakedness in the locker room. But the actors cannot disguise the synthetic nature of much of the dialogue. Too often it seems driven by a relentless search for continual comic payoffs rather than the actual truth of the intriguing situation Greenberg has chosen to examine. And while Sunjata gives an appealing, confident and often sensitive performance as the man at the calm center of the storm he’s kicked up, Darren remains something of an emotional cipher; the character and his motivations never really come into focus.
But the polished performances, to say nothing of the generous doses of beefcake and the steady stream of clever dialogue, will keep audiences reasonably entertained whenever the object of the play’s most intense affection — O’Hare’s Mr. Marzac — is absent. Indeed, the love story between Mason and his game is matched only by the one between the audience and the performer onstage. Perhaps never in my theatergoing experience have I experienced such an overwhelming — and spontaneous — surge of affection sent across the footlights.
Delectation is the only word for it: The audience seems to collectively sit forward and beam in delighted sympathy whenever O’Hare is onstage, slurring out his self-deprecating asides with a kind of mournful glee, or lecturing us on the game’s intricacies with the heedlessness of a crazed poetry professor unafraid to look foolish as he emotes his way through a passage of Wordsworth. Watching an actor of such great gifts connect so deeply and so instantly with a theater full of people turns this appealing but often synthetic evening at the theater into a singular, and peculiarly touching, experience.