Race, masculinity, and American identity have all played a key role in making baseball the national pastime. Richard Greenberg, the playwright behind the Tony-award winning Take Me Out (now playing at 12th Avenue Arts through Strawberry Theatre Workshop), understands baseball’s all-encompassing scope, and attempts to use it as means for a spectacle of societal discourse. His results are mixed, but when performed by a capable cast, certain moments hold all the power baseball possesses.
The concept is compelling enough to make one wish it had been handled differently. There's no doubt that the highly-decorated Greenberg is a talented playwright. Whether he’s the one to pen a play of this subject matter is another question. Darren Lemming (Lamar Legend), a mixed-race pro baseball player seemingly based off Derek Jeter comes out abruptly as gay, unbeknownst to the weight of his action. Lemming must then adapt to his demoted status, going from untouchable golden boy to the patronized poster child for a community he doesn’t identify with. When screw-loose Shane Mungitt (Craig Peterson)—a red-state rogue with a habit for saying bigoted slurs—joins Lemming’s team, tensions give way to a cultural battleground. The plot has all has the makings for a fascinating dissection of baseball in all its glory and carnage, a symbol of Americana that has both unified and divided the country. With the historical context of baseball’s long-winded journey to racial integration, there is certainly potential for a truly explosive work. Unfortunately, Take Me Out doesn’t quite live up to that potential until the second act.
Greenberg, a clever wordsmith, can’t help stuffing the dialogue with SAT vocabulary. He largely exercises this through Kippy Sunderstorm (Trick Danneker), a fellow player who also functions as a narrator. This is unfortunate, for despite Danneker’s valiant efforts, one resents his character from his first moment of academic yammer. Speaking in the neuroticized psychobabble of Woody Allen, he seems utterly out of place. Sunderstorm dominates the stage for much of the proceedings; the least interesting character seemingly given the most amount of stage time (replete with show business wisecracks he seems more suited for Damn Yankees).
The first act lacks urgency, often succumbing to the friendly pitter-patter of a highly-intelligent sitcom (and written in 2002, it also comes across a tad dated). Certain interactions between Lemmings and his teammates start to feel didactic. The second-act fares better, with Greenberg giving way to a state of chaos, where the play can finally breathe. The revelations that take place elicit genuine shock, displaying the ways Greenberg succeeds as a storyteller. A showdown in the showers between Lemmings and Mungitt has all the grit and moral shadings to suggest what the first act could’ve been. And one can’t help but take pleasure in the scenes that revel in the discomfort of the well-meaning, liberal audience (who were particularly enthusiastic at the performance I attended).
Under the brisk but focused direction of Greg Carter, the cast rises above the faults of the material. As the personable team manager Skippy, Carter Rodriquez delivers one of the subtlest performances of the cast, unveiling an increasing lack of control amid a tense team clubhouse. As Mason, the gay accountant in charge of handling Lemming’s finances, John Lutyens provides a squirmish affability and delivers the evening’s best monologue about baseball and its promise of democracy. Though he sometimes falls into the archetypical trappings of his character, Peterson gives Shane Mungitt a deep sense of social alienation and survival. Most pivotally, Legend succeeds in conveying all the demigod charisma of Lemmings, as well as the new-found sensation of ostracism.
In their varying degrees of posturing, these actors reveal the ways in which masculinity is performed. In turn, the skeleton of American manhood becomes more apparent; a shallow concept unraveling before the audience’s eyes. Take Me Out may be flawed, but this feat of performance makes the play a success.
Lead photo credit:Take Me Out at Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Photo by John Ulman.
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