Take Me Out ~ theatre notes

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Take Me Out

Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg, directed by Kate Cherry, designed by Richard Roberts. With Paul Bishop, Kenneth Ransom and Jeremy Lindsey Taylor. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Arts Centre Playhouse, until October 2.

As cricket is to the English, so is baseball to the Americans: a pastoral dream of green fields peopled by shining gods. And being, like cricket, a "metaphor for life", it's inspired some pretty silly remarks. Among the sillier, Richard Greenberg's grandiose declamation that "baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades" can hang with honour. (Unlike democracy, it seems, baseball has losers). Or, even better: "Baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society". Is the real problem in Baghdad that they don't play baseball?

Despite the undeniable comedy of Take Me Out, there's no getting away from the earnestness that underlies it. This is a play about identity; more specifically, it's a play about American identity, a particularly anguished question at the moment. And against the interior blankness of two of the central characters - the charismatic player who comes out of the locker, unexpectedly announcing during a press conference that he is gay, and the white trash pitcher who objects to "showering with a faggot" - is set the nostalgic romance of The Game.

Darren Lemming (Kenneth Ransom) is the star hitter of the Empires, a team rather like the New York Yankees, and his blankness is characterised by an unironic narcissism, an unchallenged sense of self-importance and centrality which segues gradually to a corrosive loneliness. "I don't have a secret," he says. "I am a secret." His polar opposite is the pitcher Shane Mungitt (Jeremy Lindsey Taylor), the ultimate untermensch, whose inarticulacy is matched by his lack of self awareness. The product of a childhood as nightmarish as underclass America can dish up, he is the acme of down south bigotry, complaining about "spics" and "niggers". But as becomes clear, the differences between these two players - one adored, one reviled - are eclipsed by what they have in common, which is their inner emptiness and violence. They are, Greenberg seems to be saying, the two faces of contemporary America, and each is tacitly and hostilely dependent on the other.

Greenberg is most at home in the earlier part of the play, when he is writing what is really a kind of camp Seinfeld: Lemming's dealings with his thicko compadres after his coming out are all urbane New York wit, with a light but pointed hilarity poking fun at political correctness or victim culture. When the play becomes more portentous, it is less successful; despite a couple of very powerfully-written scenes, the energy sighs out of it. Not uncoincidentally, that's when the big-picture metaphors about baseball really start flying around.

Kate Cherry's production is slick and fast moving, supported by a strong cast, and overcomes the problem of overblown rhetoric by camping it up (it seems in New York that the baseball epiphanies were said in all seriousness: that would definitely not have worked in Australia). This undercutting irony works very well in the first half of the evening, but after interval the play requires a shift of strategy which is not forthcoming, and the production and the performances lose conviction.

Although I think the production could have dealt differently with the second half, I wondered how much this slackening of energy had to do with the play's structure. (Or maybe it's just that the American Dream has been Dreamed to Death). This play's bloodlines are impeccably American - out of Arthur Miller by Malamud's The Natural - but it is written as if theatre stopped evolving after A View from a Bridge. It even has a couple of narrators - Kippy Sunderstrom, adeptly played by Paul Bishop, a similar figure to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, and Greenberg's self-confessed mouthpiece Mason Marzac, an appealingly crumpled performance by Simon Burke, who is baseball's naive enthusiast and its real heart. Together they orchestrate a classic three-act structure which seems, like the pastoral echo of baseball itself, almost quaintly old fashioned. As the action gets more serious, the narration become more intrusive: in the end, it's hard to see why it is there, except as a means of neatly tying up the stories.

And, perhaps, the narrative deflects some of the play's emotional bleakness: that is, it shields the audience from the implications of the play, as perhaps baseball (I am almost sure that Greenberg does not mean this, though I find it an irresistible conclusion) shields the soul of America from its inner emptiness. In which case, Take Me Out very neatly fits Brecht's description of bourgeois theatre, affirming rather than challenging its audience. Essentially it's an extended sitcom, and it can't bear the weight of tragedy without becoming overblown and self important. It aims for the grandeur and sweep of Angels in America, another gay fantasia on the American soul, but without Kushner's political savagery or fatal beauty, it settles finally for the winsome. I suspect America deserves worse.

Melbourne Theatre Company

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