Take Me Out

Also: Eulogy for a Citizen and The Designated Mourner.

Take Me Out

Seattle Repertory Theatre; ends Sat., Dec. 4

Maybe it's just the desire for a break from the unrelenting gloom that seems to be hanging over the country ever since Nov. 2, but when director Joe Mantello's production of this Richard Greenberg play comes to an end, you feel a surge of happiness, a reawakened sense of the potential for our nation to be every noble, majestic thing it used to think it was. Using baseball as an example of the embattled playing field that is American life, the play casts a clear eye on class warfare, racial disharmony, homophobia, and other entrenched societal woes. Unlike most other works willing to wade through similar messes, however, Take Me Out doesn't see such circumstance leading inevitably to a depressing loss—Mantello, Greenberg, and company reassure us that it just makes for a more challenging game.

All of this, yes, from a play about a ballplayer who decides to come out of the closet. Darren Lemming (M.D. Walton) is the young, biracial superstar of the New York Empires, a man so absolutely blessed with good fortune that he convinces himself news of his sexuality will bring absolutely no bad fortune. "He was something special," we're told by Kippy (Doug Wert), the learned, philosophical teammate who's closest to him. "A black man who had obviously never suffered."

The suffering begins almost at once, at first in little ways. The locker room and showers suddenly feel uncomfortably, combatively exposed (and, you bet, Scott Pask's slick, resourceful set design means we get to watch every wet, witty, full-frontal moment of the self-conscious chaos). "Why should I have to get dressed?" growls Toddy (Charlie Kevin, corrosively funny), accusing Darren of disrupting everyone's ability to be casually naked. "Why should I have to cover myself ever?" Even the awestruck people who admire Lemming's nerve are a tad misguided; the team's agreeably dim young catcher, Jason (Terrence Riordan), informs Darren that he's in good company because the ancient Greeks were poofters and "they made the pyramids."

Another result isn't so amusing. When pitcher Takeshi Kawabata (Robert Wu) can't break his losing streak, relief comes in the form of upstart Southern good ol' boy Shane Mungitt (Harlon George), who has a killer arm and instinct but an intellect and attitude that make dense Jason resemble a Rhodes scholar. It's only a matter of time before Mungitt finally opens his mouth to the press and officially ends any hopes that the bombshell of Lemming's revelation will just blow over.

What Mantello and Greenberg (who both won Tonys for their Broadway duties on this show) do with all this conflict is remarkably effortless for a subject matter that, in lesser hands, might have meant a dignified lecture. Neither the production nor the play itself overreaches for effect. The show has a relaxed unease—Mantello keeps even the most loaded moments loose and believably conversational, and Greenberg's observant humor chips away whatever you were sure you believed about social politics in general and professional sports in particular. We're dealing with far more than a gay baseball player almost without noticing it: Kawabata's solitary misery becomes larger than the non-English-speaking joke you expect; two Latino teammates (Ramon Fernandez and Gene Gabriel) reveal subtler divisions. It's a sign of the production's triumph that the play's potentially most difficult characters—Mungitt and Davey Battle (Charles Parnell), a rival team's star and Lemming's best friend—are the most human of the lot. George and Parnell give performances of uncompromising immediacy: When George's Mungitt moans, "I'm just sayin' whut's in my heart," you find it hard to argue with him; ditto Parnell's fervent way of selling Battle's betrayal.

Every performance here has an unfussy veracity; the ballplayers all look and talk like guys who don't care what they look or talk like (though the strapping, amiable Riordan is pushing the yokel routine a smidge). The rapport between Wert's idealistic Kippy and Walton's increasingly shaken Lemming is a natural. Showier but undeniably effective is T. Scott Cunningham as Mason Marzac, the lonely, effusive gay accountant who's assigned to handle Lemming's funds and surprises himself by becoming enamored of The Game. It's a scene-stealing role, and Cunningham takes full advantage of it, though it sometimes feels as though he's gilding an already gold-plated lily; you might wish Mantello had cured Cunningham's case of the cutes as surely as he kept George from descending into a maleficent Mungitt.

You won't, however, wish for anything better from Cunningham once he nimbly handles the play's signature monologue, a breathtakingly balanced bit of writing in which Marzac, compelled to explain why he's found solace in the national pastime, informs us that he has "come to understand that baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society." Marzac knocks it home; so does Cunningham. So does this production, as sure a winning team as we can, hopefully, one day make the world outside the diamond. STEVE WIECKING

Eulogy for a Citizen

Theater Schmeater; ends Sat., Dec. 18

This hiccuppy snippet of conversation is an example of the Hal Hartley school of dialogue, itself derived from Hemingway by way of David Mamet. Fans of the mode feel that it poignantly captures the existential difficulties inherent in communication; folks who loathe this find it nothing more than a Gen-X hedge, a hem-haw pullback from saying exactly what you mean. Your own feelings about such dialogue will almost exclusively determine your reaction to Theater Schmeater's Citizen, a futuristic fairy tale that stutteringly skirts the line between speculative science fiction and postmodern political fable.

Written by Josh Beerman, who won Schmeater's 2003 Northwest Playwright Competition, and directed by Rob West, the play is tightly produced and well acted. The stage is stark and streamlined, with a meshed scrim behind which chapter titles ("Fear of Manikins," for example) and shadows flit, giving the whole affair a bluish, vaguely Brave New World atmosphere of antiseptic dread. Everything hums and glows—even the shirt cuffs of the Messengers, luminescent liaisons who report to world leaders on behalf of the Others, celestial gods who complete this quasi-religious hierarchy.

The plot, rather simple in itself, revolves around Citizen (Garlyn Punao), a Christ-like interplanetary being who may or may not have done a bad thing. Citizen appoints a film critic, George (nebbishly played by MJ Sieber), to tell the true story of his "crime," in which the sky was ripped asunder and lots of people up and died. Nothing new here. It plays out like a Philip K. Dick retelling of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, in which the Messiah's reappearance is stymied by apostolic betrayal, bureaucratic snafus, and all-too-human selfishness.

It's in the ironically truncated repartee, a kind of robotic banter, that the play defines its morality and its theme: The medium is the message. Thus, language is pushed to the fore, with very little nuance or subtext, the elements of the story exposed like gears in a mechanical Aesop's fable. This is dangerous, and it doesn't always work. Without dramatic drapery, Citizen falls back on the pure architecture of its construction, relying on engaging the audience with talking points. It's strong on ideas, but so are city council meetings and smoke-filled dorm rooms. If such appeals to you, by all means—. RICHARD MORIN

The Designated Mourner

New City Warehouse; ends Sat., Dec. 4

People in Wallace Shawn plays talk and talk (and talk and talk . . . ). If you're not willing to put up with it—because, sorry, it does take some diligence on your part—you might as well excuse yourself from the theatrical conversation New City's latest production would like to have with you. If you do, however, you'll miss out on one of the season's most stinging offerings. Director John Kazanjian can't work the miracle of making Shawn's dense, trenchant verbosity seem continually gripping, but what he couldn't possibly do for the text he definitely does for his ensemble. Moved to New City's humble warehouse location when the Empty Space's financial crisis forced cancellation of that company's planned production of the play, Kazanjian's accomplished trio of actors delivers dense, knife-edged performances as compelling as any of those occurring on the city's more revered stages.

Mourner takes place in some unnamed society that is, of course, meant to seem not only entirely possible but shudderingly familiar, a place in which, as Jack (Peter Crook) snidely informs us, "a very special little world has died." We're guests in the house—specifically, in the bedroom—of ailing, aristocratic author Howard (Jack Clay) and his patrician daughter Judy (Mary Ewald), a couple of aesthetes who are under attack from ominous outside forces intent on murdering intellectuals. Through their direct-address monologues—and those of Jack, Judy's estranged husband, "a former student of English literature who went downhill from there"—we come to learn how these three are linked to one another and, rather unnervingly, the ways in which they are connected to us.

In true Shawn fashion, we are at first convinced that all we need do is listen passively to what's being said in order to get a clear picture of what's going on. These people are talking to us with such impassioned honesty and, after all, why would they lie? And actually, they're not lying—everybody is telling the truth as far as he or she knows it. If you checked in to any of the monologues at particular moments, you'd be certain that each of the people talking was, in different ways, describing exactly your own worldview, until something . . . off creeps into their tale—some hint of derision, some damning trace of willful ignorance, some insidious something that you realize, much to your horror, will be the all-too-likely consequence of your own complacency. Howard expresses serene appreciation for art, but a clear disdain for those not capable of his own acumen; Judy makes an initially effective plea for the rights of the poor, then caps it off with a privileged, discomfiting query about why they've been "kept so far from the songs of Shubert"; Jack notes with frustration that he had become nothing more than a collection of mindless "reportage and opinions," yet is soon noting how refreshing it is to drink a cup of tea and "not to think of other things while you drink it."

Shawn, unfortunately, can't get his articulate call to action to seem particularly active. On opening night, in fact, some audience members left after the first act because, well, everyone onstage had stopped talking so, clearly, that was the end of the play. In a play that's nothing but talk, how to tell when it's over? I don't think it's solely Kazanjian's fault that this production maintains only a makeshift sense of textual tension; Shawn hasn't successfully modulated his passions to the point where we can sense any internal build to them.

But, oh, the work Kazanjian gets from his performers. Clay has a piercing imperiousness; Ewald has damned, doomed eyes and a tangible despair; Crook, in a powerhouse turn, simultaneously emanates an enraged self-loathing and a malignant narcissism. Kazanjian has also made sure that each of them, as Shawn would demand of us, is fully present as a listener; you could watch the whole play through any one of their haunted, haunting faces. The monologues mingle until you become uncomfortably aware of how much it's up to you to decide what the reality of their world, and this one, will be. STEVE WIECKING

 
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