There's mud in joyville. The Empires' feckless all-star center fielder Darren Lemming -- blessed with the range of Willie Mays, the looks of Derek Jeter, the humility of Reggie Jackson -- has casually chosen a mid-season press conference to come out of the closet. Suddenly, the unbeatable franchise (read: Yankees) panics, its invincibility shattered until shaggy Shane Mungitt -- blessed with the needle-threading fastball of Ron Guidry, cursed with the tabloid-titillating id of John Rocker -- is called up from Double-A to shut down the opposition. But then someone hands him a microphone, and he expounds on the Rainbow Coalition that is the Empires' locker room, with "the gooks an' the spics an' the coons an' like that," adding the ultimate insult, "but every night t'have'ta take a shower with a faggot?" There are consequences.
Playwright Richard Greenberg is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to the sport, and so perhaps it's not surprising that he's written his baseball play, Take Me Out, as a morality tale on the scale of, say, Angels in America. It's a gay fantasia on Many Things American, including sports, sex, race, superstardom, bigotry, and fate. Truth to tell, however, it's really a long sitcom posing as a big play, and the sitcom elements tend to be more engaging than the big-play stuff.
Building on the Coach-like setup, for example, two characters serve as a kind of Greek chorus. The first is Kippy Sunderstrom, the shortstop who might have been an academic and who is the team's conscience. Acting as the narrator, Kippy, played with easygoing charm by Neal Huff, fancies himself Darren's best friend on the team and has a sense of irony. He's affectionately articulate about Darren's lack of irony and unashamed narcissism (though even Kippy can't hide his disappointment in the realization that Darren truly is an empty vessel). Kippy is at his most engaging when deflecting the steady stream of malaprops and inanity emanating from his dim-bulb teammates, as he is frequently called upon to do (all the sadder to report, then, that while Kippy can use congeries correctly in a sentence, the distinction between hone and home as a verb eludes his creator).
Then there's nebbishy Mason Marzac, nicknamed "Mars" by Darren, who has inherited him as business manager; Mars is more demonstratively gay than Darren ever is, at least in public. Greenberg gives Mars all the lines about baseball that would make you gag were they not being delivered with conviction by Denis O'Hare. The inevitable reverie about baseball being the only sport to exist outside of time isn't timeless, it's cliché. As are such earnest observations as "Baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society" and then, many lines later in the same monologue, "So baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades. Evades and embodies. Democracy is lovely, but baseball's more mature." Where was Mars Marzac when Ken Burns needed him?
Mars is winsomely aswoon -- first with Darren, then with the game, finally with life itself for having Darren and the game in it. O'Hare conveys all this with a poet's cadences, and hands and fingers that never stop flitting through the air except, momentarily, to embrace himself, whether to ward off demons or simply to celebrate his astounding good fortune. Physicality is a big part of Joe Mantello's production, and in this it bears more than passing resemblance to another famed ensemble piece he staged, Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! Here, as in the earlier play, an unrestrained homoeroticism is given full sway with not one but two big shower scenes that have the entire team doing the full monty forward, backward, lathered, and sideways. Great sitcom stuff, this field of wet dreams.
Yet it's also here that the play's structural endowments come up short. The plot hinges on the post-coming-out tension between Darren and Davey Battle, his hitherto best friend, a player on an opposing team who goes all Pat Robertson on him; and on the shocking, if none-too-believable, impact of Shane's return to action after a proper period of penitence. As is typically the case with sitcoms that want to make big statements, credibility becomes the sacrifice play when the Message is on the line. The self-consciousness of the opening scene devolves steadily into parody over three acts. Take Me Out doesn't actually have anything very interesting to say about coming out, or intolerance, or, for that matter, baseball.
Daniel Sunjata is fearless as Darren -- he has no difficulty playing arrogant, self-loving, confident of his prowess, and he's spectacularly offset by Frederick Weller's mangy pit bull of a Shane. Kevin Carroll's stentorian Davey is exactly right as a man Kippy calls pompous. Dominic Fumusa provides extra comic relief as the inarticulate player genuinely confused by Darren's actions. Scott Pask's unit set -- quoting Yankee Stadium, every locker room, and a baseball diamond all at once -- makes the best use of the Anspacher Theater's awkward space, set off by Kevin Adams's laser-sharp lighting. And Jess Goldstein's costumes, particularly for the players in mufti, are pitch-perfect.
More than six years into its run at the Nederlander, Rent continues to demonstrate nightly that it's got the best pop-music score Broadway has heard in 30 years. Jonathan Larson's songs, his heart, and his soul have lost none of their power.
Part of Rent's appeal has always derived from the seamlessness of the ensemble casting. Now a pop star, or to be more precise, one fifth of a pop star, has been cast as one of the two male leads in this updated La Bohème. Joey Fatone, of the boy band 'N Sync, plays Mark Cohen, the Scarsdale-bred documentarian who casts his fate with these sometimes windy but remarkably appealing creatives and hangers-on. Fatone is Pooh-Bearish (we prefer our starving artists edgy, not pudgy), and in the first act he has nearly as much trouble delivering his lines intelligibly as he does staying on key. But by the end of the second act, when he performs a full-throated duet with his composer roommate Roger (the sturdy and amazingly named Manley Pope), everything clicks.
By then we've also had the chance to savor the talents of some terrific newcomers, particularly Jai Rodriguez as the winsome transvestite Angel; Antonique Smith as the coltish lesbian performance artist Maureen; and Mark Richard Ford as Tom Collins, who launches the second-act combo reprise, "I'll Cover You" and "Seasons of Love," soaringly. I would include Karmine Alers as a very feline Mimi, but after feedback destroyed her first-act showstopper, "Out Tonight," she disappeared and was replaced by an able understudy, Dana Dawson.