Diamond in the Buff

Game: Denis O'Hare, left, is a baseball-infatuated accountant for superstar Daniel Sunjata in Take Me Out.Photo: Joan Marcus

Baseball has always bored me. It is to Richard Greenberg’s credit that he has made it—or at least its locker rooms—interesting. In Take Me Out, he has also written some rhapsodic paeans to the game. If only he could have done as much for the theater.

Take Me Out is genus boulevard comedy–melodrama, species gay. And why not, so long as it entertains, which it unremittingly does, although cleverness, which is Greenberg’s element, is never the whole story. To be sure, young men in the audience are rocked and racked with laughter, to the point where a mere “So?” from one of the characters elicits guffaws that register on the Richter scale. Credibility, however, lags well behind.

We get here baseball characters whose speech is literate to the point of literariness, as when Kippy, the play’s narrator and shortstop for the Empires (read Yankees), proclaims, “So now we start the Kafkaesque portion of the evening. Well, Kafka-lite, anyway … Dekaf-ka.” Kippy seldom stops short of the professorial, but the others have their arias, too—even the brutish Shane. Brought in from double-A Utica as a closer (his only talent), he doesn’t even know which state he was born in but makes speeches that only Dostoyevsky’s disinherited were previously heirs to.

This is at least preferable to a play in which people spoke like real baseball players, though Greenberg does include a couple of meatheads, plus a pair of Latinos who palaver in Spanish, and a Japanese import who speaks nothing but Japanese until it suits Greenberg otherwise. As a result, the play tends to devolve into so many skits.

The central figure, Darren Lemming (suggested by Derek Jeter) is nothing short of mythic. Half black, he is one who “even in baseball, one of the few realms of American life in which people of color are routinely adulated by people of pallor,” as Kippy tells us, “was something special.” An almost superhumanly gifted and privileged being, he can publicly declare his homosexuality and privately compare himself to God. Significantly, though, Greenberg finesses two scènes à faire: the press conference in which Darren outs himself, and the confession of Kippy, married and a paterfamilias, that he is in love with Darren. Conversely, there is an abundance of shower and locker-room scenes with male frontal nudity, so that, if only a song were introduced, one could feel blissfully transported to Off Broadway’s Naked Boys Singing!

What truly distinguishes the show is the acting and directing. Daniel Sunjata’s Darren exudes devilish self-assurance and perfect timing enough to make you believe he is Superman. As his accountant, a caricatural gay man tacitly enamored of him, Denis O’Hare gives a spectacular performance. He prestidigitates with limbs and torso as if they were made of Indian clubs, and tremulously conveys Greenberg’s profound cuteness and cute profundities. Superb, too, is Frederick Weller’s touchingly animal Shane, with the others scarcely behind in ensemble acting. No one can stage this kind of play better than Joe Mantello, especially when supported by the canny set of Scott Pask, apt costumes of Jess Goldstein, and blazing lights of Kevin Adams.

In Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton, young Van Gogh, as yet only a lowly art dealer, falls in love successively with his London landlady’s daughter, Eugenie (unsuccessfully), and with the middle-aged landlady, Ursula Loyer (successfully). It is sheer fantasy, for although the Loyers and their young Dutch tenant existed—and the working-class suburb of Brixton still bustles—the love stories are rather conventional fabrication.

Eugenie is having an affair with the other lodger, Sam, a Cockney house painter; Ursula, a celibate widow, is reawakened to sexual life by the bumbling attentions of the virginal Vincent, whose motto, derived from Jules Michelet, is “No woman is old.” By Act Two, Eugenie and Sam are married with children, including a baby whose mewling is positively Wagnerian. Ursula has bitterly resigned herself to the ephemeralness of love with an eccentric and peripatetic young Dutchman, and Vincent—who would have guessed?—has begun to sketch his pair of muddy boots. The play is no worse than most mass entertainment, and is savvily directed by Richard Eyre. As Ursula, the British-Irish actress Clare Higgins is commanding, and the young Dutch actor Jochum ten Haaf, as Vincent, properly odd. The three Americans in the cast manage their various accents commendably. If nothing else, the show should teach Americans how to pronounce the painter’s name: not rhyming with tango, but as Fun Hoch, rhyming with the Scottish for lake.

Where kooky, zany, and madcap meet is the locus of Jacquelyn Reingold’s modest but spunky comedy String Fever. It concerns the problems of the unmarried but eagerly marriageable 40-year-old music teacher Lily, who has wretched luck with men, nagging conflicts with her father, and support only from a feisty female friend. Though Lily’s life is fraught, the others’ lives are even more messed up. Still, all disasters have their comic side, some of them nothing but. Especially the marital troubles of Gisli, an impish Icelandic comedian, superbly played by Evan Handler.

All the acting is good, but it is Cynthia Nixon, a national treasure, whose Lily holds it all together. Even if the play were not so whimsically winsome, she would be well worth the price of admission.

You may believe Anto Howard’s Scattergood in the unlikely event that you can also believe that a professor of medieval literature at Dublin’s Trinity College would devote much of his time to coaching his male student Brendan in how to make out with his female student Miss Regan. Is the fact that many years ago, Professor Scattergood backed away from the only woman he was ever drawn to enough to turn him into such a Svengali? T. R. Knight is excellent as Brendan, Tari Signor tolerable as Miss Regan, and Brian Murray wallows in his lovable old tricks, which include flashing a toothy grin out of left field, even though this play is not about baseball. None of it suffices.

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Take Me Out
By Richard Greenberg; staged by Joe Mantello.

Vincent in Brixton
By Nicholas Wright; staged by Richard Eyre.

String Fever
By Jacqueline Reingold.

By Anto Howard.

Diamond in the Buff