There's a lot going on in The Catch, a world premiere that grew out of a reading at last year's New Play Festival. Ken Weitzman's script presents a swirl of ideas — some of them fairly obvious, but all explored in interesting ways. Preeminent among them is the well-worn concept of baseball as a metaphor for America itself — and of the gulf between the myth of the game and the corruption at its core. In the hands of Darryl Love, the brash, boastful, charismatic player at the center of this story, the baseball itself becomes a symbol, its seams stitching over the country's flaws, both present and historical: the racism that sidelined talented black players for years; the emphasis on commercialism and the quick deal; the jacked-up greed that brought about the financial meltdown. And this is also a story about fathers: a Japanese-American who was sent to an internment camp during World War II and whose memory his son Michael still seeks to redeem, and — most important — Sid Zipnik, a Polish Jew who escaped the armies of both Russia and Germany, lost everything, and intends to hold on to the one thing he owns — a crumbling house in Chicago — until his fingers break.
None of this would matter, however, if Weitzman hadn't created such a lively, punchy, thought-provoking evening of theater. Every now and then the script gets repetitive, but for the most part the themes rise organically from the characters and the action. The play is set in San Francisco, where Sid is visiting his son, Gary, and the plot is based on fact. In 1998, baseball player Mark McGwire hit a home run, and the ball — caught by a fan — eventually sold for three million dollars. Barry Bonds broke the single-season home-run record three years later and, after a wild scramble, two men ended up claiming his ball. Naturally, legal proceedings followed.
In The Catch, Gary is the first man to grab the prize, and he's a genuinely original character, combining serious smarts (he actually does figure out where the coveted ball is likely to land by crunching the numbers) with a delusional nuttiness so impenetrable that it almost rises to greatness. Gary's failed dot-com venture lost him both his wife and his home, and he's desperate to get them back. And he also yearns for the respect of emotionally stunted Sid.
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Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 26, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
There are a lot of laughs. The stereotype-defying antics of Michael's widowed Japanese mother, Ruth, are a constant delight, and Wai Ching Ho is hilarious in the role as she kicks up her heels and chides Michael (a quietly dignified Pun Bandhu) for his self-effacement. Darryl Love prances onto the stage again and again, a jeering, preening chorus, swirling judge's robes around himself or attired in nothing but a towel, scoring political points as self-serving as they are accurate; it really shouldn't be legal to have as much fun on stage as Nicoye Banks does in this role. Makela Spielman is sympathetic as Gary's disillusioned wife, Beth.
But there's also a tragic undertone in the baffled, twisted bond between Gary and Sid, and Weitzman's dialogue provides no easy solution, no moment when the two men break down or through with each other. The one moment where something like this almost happens is as wonderful for its evasion as it is for its intimacy. I'd hate to see the role of Gary in less skillful hands than those of Ian Merrill Peakes, who makes the man's highs so convincing we can't help rooting for him, and conveys the lows beneath the hucksterism without ever descending into bathos. Mike Hartman has created a gallery of crotchety, lovable old guys for Denver audiences, but here he's called on to dial back on the lovable and create someone more destructive, and he brings every iota of his considerable talent and integrity to the task. For anyone of Eastern European extraction, Sid is hardly an unfamiliar figure; my Hungarian stepfather, too, lost everything he had in the war — and with it the ability to connect with those he loved without resorting to bullying or wildly inappropriate effusions. He also clung to material objects, filling the house with piles of things found on sale: underwear, toilet paper, cans of soup. For me, the most significant truth of The Catch lies in the sacrifice Sid offers to make for Gary, and in Gary's heartbreaking response.