We rely on promises to maintain the fragile tenets of trust in human relationships, just as we expect the truth to send us on a path of virtuous enlightenment, almost unharmed by its many thorns and tenacious bristles, surreptitiously eating away at the tender heartstrings on the way to that fabled rose.
If only we had the foresight to break some of those well-intentioned pacts; but happy landings seldom make for good drama, and seeing as this one is a true humdinger, the lives of its characters may as well have been doomed from the start.
In Richard Greenberg’s Tony Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated, “Take Me Out,” those very same forces of good are but caricatured inversions of their traditional, esoteric worth, as is often the case outside of fiction. In the Heights Players’ 2010 revival, brilliantly directed by Fabio Taliercio, they are wrought with havoc and meaning, tragedy, hope and – most of all – humanity, ultimately proving that perhaps the road to Hell is truly paved with good intentions, as the time-honored adage claims.
The protagonist is Darren Lemming (Ugo Chukwu), a hotshot baseball player for the all-star Emperors. He’s distant, relatively emotionless (unless arrogance counts) and of the opinion that he rather resembles God – or at least a god. After a routine conversation with his best friend and professional competitor, Davey Battle (Bryant Wingfield), he suddenly feels the urge to be true to himself – and his public – and subsequently come out of the proverbial closet.
His closest confidant (though to be perfectly honest, Darren doesn’t truly do confiding) on the team is Kippy Sunderstrom (Seth Grugle), who almost serves a parental role to the unruly Emperors, so much so that he’s the only one to take an honest, sympathetic approach to the new guy, the hauntingly mysterious Shane Mungitt (Craig Kelton Peterson).
Eerily silent and almost wild, the Arkansas-born (or Tennessee, or Mississippi) pitching powerhouse at first shocks his teammates with the story of his tragic past, and then outrages them through his casual use of epithets on live television, earning a suspension, though matters only truly worsen when he returns to the team.
Written primarily in comedic style for the first act, this three-part phenomenon takes a drastic turn for the disturbing after its initial intermission, and despite the occasional chuckle, the titanic weight stays firmly entrenched square in the heart, heavily marring any forthcoming attempts at humor.
But perhaps that’s the point.
Where the group dynamic was once amorous (though only in the manliest way), it is now charged with the sort of tension reserved for guilty secrets and couples therapy. Kippy points this out; the rest of the guys are so attached to their secretly embraced homophobia that they don’t acknowledge it.
Then again, Kippy has always been the sensible one – the loyal, kind and honor-bound Emperor – and the only one who reached out to Shane.
Seriously spooked and seldom able to put together a string of coherent words (Peterson researched feral children for his performance), the heavily traumatized Shane is handled with a level of professionalism traditionally reserved for Oscars, Broadway or the West End. So realistic is his portrayal of this terrified and severely disconnected young man that – despite his inherent flaws (and there are many) – he elicits a kind of warm sympathy. With sculpted shoulders quivering like a child forced to grow up too fast, it’s nearly impossible to not want to take and envelop this broken young bigot into a soothing embrace, willing all the horror and gut-wrenching misery (and hopefully, ignorance) to give way to long-evaded peace.
Yet where his character’s baby blues reflect snared innocence, Peterson’s simply sparkle with a keen intelligence, with a charming, captivating smile their ever-devoted companion – but that’s off the set – a testament to his acting ability. When in the role of Shane, he truly becomes this heavily scarred young man, bestowing each of his viewers with sturdy rivets – eyes to stage.
Speaking of flawed, Darren is hardly the conventional protagonist. Deeply egotistical and the very embodiment of narcissism, this ill-tempered bully nevertheless garners enormous amounts of pathos from the audience. Though, like Peterson, this is surely Chukwu’s doing. Infused with a cocky swagger and borderline verbally abusive to his accountant, Nathan Marzac (Nathan Richard Wagner), Darren is not an easy character to like. Yet, this is precisely his appeal.
The media loves him due to his bi-racial ancestry and middle-class upbringing, with the recent exposure of his sexual preference only adding to the hype, but the real Darren is hardly a hero. However, when humbling toward the end of the play – even after spilling the brunt of his transgressions – he resolutely wins the audience’s compassion, against all odds.
Significantly less tragic, though tremendously talented in his own right is Grugle, who virtually oozes charisma as the play’s narrator. Bearing the appearance of a wholesome, all-American boy, he seems to be “Take Me Out’s” only persona with moral conviction, though even he is not immune to the harder drama of the production, as even his otherwise sensible eyes contain a decidedly haunting air at the dawn of a chilling revelation.
Despite their dramatic prowess, the respective players at the Heights stage still show impeccable capacity for comedic timing, as expertly witnessed with Wagner (among many others), whose contagiously awkward zest is all that keeps the ending bittersweet, providing a remarkably poignant foil for Darren’s personal journey to humility.
In fact, the talents at the small Off-Off-Broadway theatre have (for the first time) garnered such acclaim that they’ve been nominated at the New York Innovative Theatre Awards (www.nyitawards.com), dedicated to celebrating the tradition of Off-Off-Broadway shows, for which voting is still active, so results are still pending.
The rampant nudity – which at first seems a bit of a shock, but is later drowned out in captivating story – does not seem to hinder their chances in the slightest. But any additional mention would be telling, and as Kippy finally learns: perhaps it isn’t always wisest to talk.
The price of enlightenment, just as that of earnestly sought promises, may simply be too high.
Photos by Jan VanderPutten