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True controversy, moral conundrums, and naked penises return to Broadway

Wednesday, Dec 22 2004
Controversy is so rare on Broadway that some theatergoers forget that their overpriced tickets don't always entitle them to comfortable seats. Rock musicals, anniversary revivals, extended pee jokes, outrages by John Waters, and other faux controversies have steeled audiences against real moral difficulty. Not even Tony Kushner is controversial. People either love Kushner or loathe him, and the people who find his politics offensive (or redundant) simply avoid his shows. I've never seen anyone walk out of a Kushner play.

Take Me Out, though, is different. Richard Greenberg has a broad and versatile talent, like Michael Frayn's; one play is nothing like the next. The Dazzle was a Beckettian piece about two Harlem eccentrics buried alive in their own clutter. The Violet Hour was about novelists in the Jazz Age. Take Me Out wrestles with racial and sexual politics on a baseball team not unlike the Yankees. Even if you've heard of the famous shower scene, and you know Greenberg, nothing quite prepares you for what happens, and on opening night more than one indignant audience member stood up to leave.

Darren Lemming, a half-black star hitter on the Empires, inspires the sort of adulation reserved for men like Barry Bonds and Derek Jeter. He is, however, gay. He comes out in public at the height of his fame, during a balmy season for the Empires, and the hurt morale in the locker room finds public expression in the mouth of a mulleted, white-trash pitching sensation named Shane Mungitt. Shane's just up from the minor leagues (and rural poverty); he has no idea how to behave. When he spouts off on TV about "the gooks an' the spics an' the coons an' like that" on his team -- never mind the "faggot" he has to shower with -- he's asked to leave. But the Empires hire him back to save a faltering season, and Darren threatens to quit.

The drama isn't subtle. It's big and melodramatic. The fallout between Darren and Shane is also larger than life. At the same time, the clever lines Greenberg has written for a sympathetic teammate named Skipper, who narrates, are too self-conscious and smart for either baseball or Broadway. A beefcake player pointing out that baseball is one American venture where "people of color" are admired by "people of pallor," for example, sounds a lot like authorial cleverness. Maybe you can get away with such hip dialogue in a smaller house, where actors don't have to shout for the rafters (and apparently Take Me Out was more compelling off-Broadway), but in the Golden Gate Theatre it sounds like the irony of an adman, or a TV writer, trying to write for the kids.

So the play has a lot of flaws. But it also has a peculiar power. Harlon George does ferocious work as Shane, who's an uncorked racist as well as a victim of child abuse; George's acting may be a bit monotone, but he's not afraid of offending the audience. T. Scott Cunningham plays a cheerful, crowd-pleasing, gay financial manager, Mason Marzac, who converts with embarrassing zeal to baseball fandom after taking over Darren's accounts. Marzac waxes lyrical about the game's relationship to democracy, its timelessness, its cud-chewing pace, and its utterly pointless tradition of "home-run trots." He's full of clichés, but he knows it; he'd be hard to take if Cunningham weren't so charming.

Take Me Out clicks when its intimate, thoughtful elements mesh with its outsized drama. The shower scenes are one good example. A row of naked athletes onstage is an automatic sexual problem, especially with one man openly gay, and the audience squirms. Greenberg and director Joe Mantello push their luck with these scenes -- we don't need more than one or two -- but they're starkly amusing.

The other example is Shane himself. He's even more offensive to your average theatergoer than a row of wet penises. Mean, anti-social, gauche, with bad hair, he stands out like Randy Johnson against a manicured outfield. He likes to yell. Yet he's been subtly written. Darren may be half-black and gay, but he's a multimillionaire superstar; Shane's a bit of bewildered, half-educated trailer trash. Who, exactly, is the victim? Greenberg shows just enough sympathy for his devil to make Take Me Out a moral conundrum.

Outside of M.D. Walton, as Darren; Charles Parnell, who plays a smooth, appropriately pompous Davey Battle (a celebrity friend of Darren's on an opposing team); and the actors already mentioned, the cast gives an uneven performance, sometimes landing a punch line, sometimes not. The script's not perfect, either, and Mantello tries to make up for its flaws with the usual magic of a fancy set -- scoreboard, lockers, and outfield lights arranged in a clever collage by Scott Pask. But it's so rare to see "Best of Broadway" audiences react with gasps of self-righteous irritation to a basically earnest and questioning play that I can't resist thinking Greenberg has thrown a strike.


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