Let Us Bray
Opening nights are a strange phenomenon, paper houses filled with critics and theater people. The latter are warmly supportive of their friends in the play, and many of them express their support by responding so passionately -- empathetic gasps, howls of slightly drunken laughter -- that the rest of us can hardly follow the action. The opening-night audience at Curious Theatre Company's Take Me Out was one of the worst I've encountered. And behind me, flanked by jovial friends, sat the worst of the worst -- a Denver actress who apparently found the fact that her colleagues on the stage were receiving more attention than she was unbearable. She laughed. Like Araminta Ditch in John Lennon's A Spaniard in the Works, she larfed and larfed. Ceaselessly. Directly into my exposed ear. Loud yelps of laughter, raucous, belly-shaking rumbles, shrill equine neighings, parrot-like cackles and an occasional sequence of noises that sounded like an ancient, rusted engine attempting to turn over: uck-uck-uck-uck-uck.
Unfortunately, Richard Greenberg's multi-award-winning Take Me Out isn't a farce. It's one of those plays in which the language is full of wit and unexpected insight and the action trembles between funny and tragic. It requires a careful balance of tone on the part of both the players and the director. You have to let a particular line sink in for a second before you can be sure that it's laugh-out-loud funny, or wistful funny, or humorous but profound, or not funny in the slightest. This requires -- as do all serious plays -- focus and attention on your part, an entering into the world of the play. But with almost every word said on stage, there would be that parrot's assault on my ear again. One of the main characters in Take Me Out is Mason Marzac, a nerdy, sheltered business manager who's asked to take over the portfolio of baseball star Darren Lemming. Mason is starstruck by his client. He develops a passion for baseball, and a whole new world opens up for him. He expresses his delight in several comical but philosophical monologues on baseball as metaphor, as democracy, as America. Erik Sandvold plays this role with flamboyant conviction, but I began to dread his every entrance. The man could hardly get out a full thought before it was punctuated by the Shrieker.
What was this woman thinking? That she was alone in front of her television set? That her cacchination would delight others?
Take Me Out explores what happens when an admired athlete tells the world he's gay. Darren is aloof, dignified, godlike to his fans. The son of a black father and a white mother, handsome, athletically gifted, he has led a life of privilege. He seems blind to the fact that his announcement is likely to cause problems. He's a fascinating character, but you can never quite fathom what he's about. Despite his wealth and fame, he's so lonely that he's grateful for Mason's attention. His best friend is Kippy, who also serves as the play's narrator, but from the beginning, there's an odd distance between them. Darren is puzzlingly oblivious to his effect on others. He says he's interested in nothing, and he talks about leaving baseball while he's still at the pinnacle of his career.
Predictably, everything changes in the locker room once his teammates learn that Darren is gay. Some behave politely, some are contemptuous, but all become self-conscious in his presence. The contradictions in the situation are thrown into stark relief when the team brings in a new pitcher, Shane Mungitt. Because of an unimaginably horrific home life, this man is an overgrown infant, a solid mass of inarticulate grief and rage. At his first encounter with the press, he spews out a series of racist and homophobic epithets.
Shane is suspended but ultimately allowed back on the team. Darren -- surprisingly, given that he knows how damaged Shane is and has shown a godlike imperturbability in the face of earlier bouts of homophobia -- is enraged. Eventually, the play takes a turn toward tragedy.
As a whole, Take Me Out feels a bit ragged. There's a death brought about in a way that strains credulity. There's a sequence in which Kippy visits Shane in prison and Darren simply decides to go with him. The visit is unsupervised. When I last checked, prison visiting rules were pretty rigid. At one point, Darren jokes with Mason about the two homosexuals in his building, and it's funny. The same joke, repeated after the death, becomes crass. The play lacks a strong sense of overall unity -- structural or thematic -- or maybe I just failed to grasp it because of all the noisy distraction. But the writing is smart, enjoyable and thought-provoking, there are some wonderful scenes, and the characters are memorable.
The set, by Daniel Guyette, makes brilliant use of the space and features a row of real, working showers. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the naked scenes are a tribute both to the cast's concentration and to Chip Walton's direction. There's some fine acting here, particularly the superb Tyee Tilghman as Darren, and Leigh Miller, who gives Kippy likability and intelligence. Sandvold pulls out all the stops as Mason, making him simultaneously ridiculous and empathetic. John Jurcheck is a powerful Shane, but he sometimes seems almost trapped in his own tics and jitters. It doesn't help that the big prison scene is so unconvincingly written.
I'd like to experience this rich evening of theater at a quieter viewing.
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