Much like the venerable National Pastime it depicts, Richard Greenberg's 2003 Tony Award winning, "Take Me Out" currently running at The Seattle Repertory Theatre has a little something for everyone; there's the sheer spectacle, the celebration of physical prowess, the subtle complexity of a sport that relies as much on mental acuity as it does on athletic ability, the raising of intellectual and moral questions that could be drawn from today's headlines, even a brief scent of the ballpark atmosphere of popcorn and peanut shells.
What Seattle audiences also get is a literal recreation of the Broadway production, from Tony winner Joe Montello's fluid, muscular and dynamic staging to a reunion of his "Take Me Out" technical team of Scott Pask (scenic design), Jess Goldstein (costumes), and Janet Kalas (sound design). Considering the show is co-produced by San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, and is liberally (for all intents-and-purposes exclusively) cast with New York based actors, essentially this is the first stop on a mini-West coast tour, all of which gives the show a highly polished, but admittedly uncomfortable sheen that makes it seem more appropriate for a road house than for Seattle's flagship regional non-profit company.
Taken on its own terms, however, Greenberg's script is a magnificent distillation and synthesis of baseball's place in contemporary culture; it's uniquely American blend of the mental and physical, its inherently (at least in theory) democratic ideals and egalitarian structure, the almost religious sense of devotion of its fans, as well as the all too human foibles of its participants. Greenberg has penned not only a marvelous paean that could only come from someone newly converted to the game, but plumbs to remarkable depths, not only how baseball is a microcosm of the male ego, but how the themes and issues of the sport itself are reflected - or reflected back - by the larger culture in which is exists.
Mantello, in recreating his original staging, proves adept at fully realizing Greenberg's fluid, at times almost rambling structure, as the play shifts back-and-forth in time, and actors directly address the audience. It's stylistically a very tricky piece of work, but Mantello easily negotiates the potential pitfalls, starting off slowly and with a sense of searching for the right way in which to tell the story, then gradually allows the events and character interactions to dictate the acceleration of pace and emotional conflict. In this sense, it also is much like a typical ball game; starting slowly in the early innings, but broken up with explosive flashes of excitement, of titillation and of dread expectation, until the excruciatingly delicious last few pitches, when victory or defeat hangs in the balance until the very last out.
It's a matter of open speculation whether Mantello could have achieved the same results using a cast comprised of local performers, however, there is little doubt that the cast he has assembled proves more than up to the task of realizing the emotional lives of the characters. M.D. Walton, as New York Empires franchise player, Darren Lemming displays all the cocky self-assurance of a young man of immense talent at the top of his game. But, his sense of invulnerability, propped up in large degree to the kind of social insularity granted only the most revered of superstars is sorely put to the test when he nonchalantly comes out during a post-game interview. Little understanding the repercussions of his act, he blithely assumes that it won't change anything; not his relationships with the fans and his fellow players, and least of all himself. Walton nicely balances these two conflicting aspects of his character, never coming off as a snidely egocentric "brat", but at the same time resisting for much of the play to admit his responsibility for shaping subsequent events. It's a portrayal that could have easily lost the audience's sympathy, but Walton finds a complexity that transcends Lemming's naÔvetÈ.
As with Walton's performance, those of Doug Wert, as the Empires resident "intellectual," Kippy Sunderstrom, and T. Scott Cunningham as Lemming's neurotic, gay financial advisor, Mason Marzac are both marvels to watch, and effectively contrast Lemming's cool detachment with their own brands of keen observation and newcomers enthusiasm respectively. Cunningham in particular gets some of the best audiences responses of the evening with his gushing, but cogent observations on the larger place baseball holds in a democratic society, and despite his constant, almost cloying self-deprecation, he gives an appealing performance as the ordinary guy given a chance to bask vicariously in the reflected spotlight of a genuine celebrity. Wert, in contrast is a wry inside observer, a sort of amateur anthropologist fascinated by male bonding rituals that Darren's coming out has so egregiously unsanctified. His own tragedy lies in the fact that his well-meaning desire to restore order to the chaos simply adds more fuel to the inevitable fire that erupts.
Greenberg has structured the play in such a way that the three main characters act as sort of deconstructed aspects of a single personality, and with the inclusion of Harlon George's nuanced portrayal of a "good old boy" southern racist relief-pitcher acting as a catalyst, they struggle to find some way to reintegrate each of themselves into a coherent identity. Essentially, the point is rather obvious: a well-rounded personality requires a balance between the intellectual, physical and emotional in order to realize ones "true nature", as one character puts it early on, and when any of these is out of balance with the others (as is the case to a certain degree with each of these three) ones ability to make good judgment calls comes into question, often with tragic consequences, as is the result here.
These three carry the bulk of Greenberg's dialogue and thematic arguments, and he gives somewhat short shrift to most of the rest of his 11 man cast, at least half of which constitute mere "walk on" roles, designed as much to display the racial diversity (and accompanying racial disharmony) inherent in the sport as it does to convey the sense of enough bodies to round out an actual ball team. Charles Parnell gets a few nice moments in the somewhat overwritten role of Darren's friend and occasional rival, the bombastic Davey Battle, while Charlie Kevin shows a great deal of -- ahem -- flexibility in the role of the team jokester, Toddy Koovitz. But, for the most part, the rest of the cast contributes little to the story and only slightly more to the widely ranging themes Greenberg explores.
Montello's technical team provides a dazzling ballpark inspired scenic contribution, from Goldstein's accurate depiction of major league baseball uniforms, to Pask's stripped down locker room setting (including the infamous "shower" that figures prominently at the top of Act Two), and Kalas' Wurlitzer organ and rock-and-roll driven soundtrack. In addition, Lighting Designer Kevin Adams adds neon and klieg light elements reminiscent of a big league ballpark, as well as softer colors and tones for more intimate scenes.
"Take Me Out", as the title implies, carries a variety of interpretations, and despite an occasional drop, Greenberg's script does an admirable job of keeping the numerous thematic balls in the air. As with baseball itself, there's far more going on that just what seems obvious on the field of play, and just as this production uses the sport's milieu to delve into issues of racial and cultural bigotry, the cult of the celebrity, and the emotionally labyrinthine dynamics of male bonding, so too will the audience find much more to ponder after the final out has been called and the field lights turned off on another season.
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