Nothing Foul Here

Nearly a decade since its initial run, Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out can now be viewed as a period piece, of sorts. Out was a watershed play, addressing homosexuality and ignorance in the world of American sports in the wake of moderately controversial statements made by Mike Piazza and John Rocker. It crystallized a few offhand comments into a work of art. And yet even though it went on to nab the Tony for Best Play and land on the Pulitzer shortlist, Greenberg’s signature piece was not a flawless work. Greenberg’s themes in Out are as abundant as they are passionate, but it runs the risk of feeling like a polemic. Fortunately, director Fabio Taliercio manages to navigate past many of these hurdles in his deeply perceptive production of the show, presented by Brooklyn’s Heights Players. He focuses on the people behind the ideas, and makes the best of an extremely talented ensemble.

Most of the cast play teammates of the fictional Empires, a Yankees-esque team enduring a drought. Darren Lemming (Ugo Chukwu), a cocky (though not arrogant) mixed-race teammate meant to recall the stature of Derek Jeter, outs himself at a press conference. It’s a decision that affects the Empires and several other key individuals. To Greenberg’s credit, many of these consequences are unforeseeable.

Also to Greenberg’s credit is how well he endows several prominent roles. Lemming might appear to be the lead of Out, but there are several other characters drawn with less broad strokes. These include Kippy Sunderstrom (Seth Grugle), the play’s omniscient narrator, widely regarded to be the smartest player in the league. Grugle proves himself to be quite a polished performer in a layered role – he is able to suggest that he is a well-read, open-minded figure and still not quite understand how Lemming, a friend with whom he spends more time than with his wife and children, could keep such an important secret from him. (The actor also deserves extra points for mastering Greenberg’s demanding dialogue with the same nimble skill that Eminem displays when wrapping his tongue around rap lyrics.)

Of course, anyone familiar with earlier incarnations of Out will also remember that it’s the lone non-slugger who nearly steals the whole show. Mason Marzac (Nathan Richard Wagner), is Lemming’s accountant (and eventually more), but he also serves as a surrogate for Greenberg himself. The sheepish number cruncher becomes a fan of the great American pastime for the first time, ascribing the sport as a symbol of democracy.

Mason is a clever invention on Greenberg’s part – he explains baseball for those (given theater audiences, many) unfamiliar with the details of the sport, and acts as a cheerleader for those audience members that are already fans. Marzac is the jewel in this show’s crown, and Wagner shines. He nails Marzac’s several impassioned monologues in a turn that is as enthusiastic as it is completely endearing.

It’s the fourth pivotal character, though, that both Greenberg and this production have some trouble pinning down. The Empires recruit Shane Mungitt (Craig Peterson), a prejudiced hick, to be their relief pitcher. He saves the team but becomes a divisive presence when he speaks out publicly about his racist and homophobic beliefs.

Mungitt is a tricky character to play. Is he merely uneducated, socially awkward, or is there something more sociopathic toward him? A first act scene in which Lemming and Sunderstrom try to engage him plays awkwardly, and doesn’t do justice to Mungitt. As the play escalates, however, and Mungitt emerges as a more fully formed character, Peterson acquits himself better, giving greater insight into the pitcher’s malevolence.

Taliercio is a skilled and patient storyteller, and his production manages to undercut some of Greenberg’s other flaws. First of all, it’s a boon to have a cast that more closely resembles the actual age of a pro baseball team than the original production had; it lends the characters’ immature, sometimes misguided reactions added authenticity. Additionally, Lemming’s motivation for coming out is never clear in the text. He is a self-described loner, does not have a surging libido, and is not currently attached to anyone, so why bother, aside from the fact that it is necessary to ignite Greenberg’s plot? Chukwu goes a very long way to unmasking the man, suggesting a solitude and an intelligence that have been quietly eroding him from the inside.

There are several other players to be applauded here: Mike Basile provides necessary comic relief as the bullet-headed Toddy Koovitz, while Doua Moua is terrific as Takeshi Kawabata, the Japanese ball player who refuses to learn English in order to keep his game pure – Greenberg provides him, too, with a special monologue that the actor makes the most of. Bryant Wingfield also nails his scenes as Davey Battle, an opponent of the Empires but friend to Lemming.

I also commend Carl Tallent's moveable set, which, among other locales, serves as press box, clubhouse, and locker room. That last setting brings to mind the show’s most polarizing element, which is the nudity in the shower scenes. It’s far from gratuitous – these scenes allow the audience to either share or dismiss the players’ discomfort following Lemming’s coming out. What I do wish is that Greenberg had crafted an earlier scene showing how this was a nonissue prior to the announcement. Also, eliminating one of the production’s two intermissions might help allay the play’s few momentary lulls (it currently runs just shy of three hours).

Out still manages to make the most of its source material, though, and then some, in this intelligent production full of all-stars. They should be full of pride.

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