Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out could only fully succeed with an American audience. Obviously, as a Briton, there's a certain presumption in my saying this. Nevertheless, both the programme notes and the play itself (at the Donmar Warehouse in Joe Mantello's co-production with New York's Public Theater) tell us so time and again, and they seem to have a point.
It's not that the play is about baseball. It isn't, anyway: baseball is simply the setting. Rather, it's about baseball's place in American culture, far beyond being just the national sport. The rest of us can learn the rules, but we can never learn the deep, visceral connection, the common individual and folk memories of the game that enable Greenberg to use it as a shorthand for America itself.
When superstar hitter Darren Lemming comes out as gay, the repercussions among his teammates, friends and acquaintances pretty much run the gamut: agenda-led idolisation, ambivalence, nice-but-dim uneasiness, the lot. The two most dramatically fruitful responses, of course, are outright mindless homophobia (here combined with racism) and the kind of well-intentioned liberal support that misfires and becomes a form of repressive tolerance. These are personified respectively by Shane Mungitt, the team's hot new pitcher but a moronic redneck, and Kippy Sunderstrom, Lemming's best friend on the team, sharp-minded but just slightly imperfect in his perception of matters.
So is Lemming himself. Greenberg astutely invests his protagonist with a kind of easy arrogance: he knows what he is worth (yes, we see the financial implications too), and is angered by the response to a gaffe by Mungitt because the public give him, Darren, compassion when what he wants is envy. Nor is this aspect of his character allowed to become the single tragic flaw precipitating his downfall; the play steers away from that "bad end for gay character" cliché, although things certainly get complicated.
Perhaps too much so, in the third act, as all kinds of revelations take place. Narrator Kippy's announcement of this phase of the drama as "Kafkaesque... Kafka-lite... decaf-ka" is the witticism of a playwright pre-emptively covering his hide. Up to this point, Greenberg copes well with providing excuses for his overwriting: Kippy is an intellectual, and Lemming's best best friend has a taste for religiose archaisms in conversation. But in the third act, you can almost hear the sound of threads being tied together.
And always the deeper resonances can be felt. Lemming's status is acknowledged as an icon to the gay community or to America at large, yes, but more intimately bound up with the game itself is the tension between the individual and the collective, between being true to your own heart and acknowledging bonds with and obligations to others, the need to square this circle which lies at the heart of the ideal of American life in particular. A British audience can see and understand all the strands of the play, but we can't feel it right here. Still, the day may come: I read recently that more Americans now play soccer than baseball.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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