I've only been a theatre critic for nine months so perhaps I'm not qualified to make this judgement, but contemporary American playwrights strike me as being in a different class to their British counterparts. If the Domnar Warehouse's latest season of plays is anything to go by, American theatre is currently enjoying a golden age. Perhaps the Domnar's 'American Imports' season has left a misleading impression because Sam Mendes is so good at picking winners, but I doubt it. Of the five plays in the series, four have been absolutely outstanding and, by West End standards, that's a remarkable statistic. The Domnar's closest rival is the National, but the National only achieves a 50% success rate and the best production I've seen there has been Jitney, an American play. After the National, the Almeida and the Bush are level pegging with a strike rate of, perhaps, one in three and after them...well, there's virtually nothing.
Take Me Out isn't the best of the Domnar's 'American Imports' season--that accolade goes to Lobby Hero which has just transferred to the New Ambassadors--but it's certainly the second best and that's high praise indeed. Superficially, it's about a major league baseball team and the demons that are unleashed when their star player, Darren Lemming, comes out as a homosexual. But don't be put off by the fact that it's about baseball. I know nothing about the sport and yet I could follow every word. The baseball team in Take Me Out functions as a microcosm of American society and what the play is really about is what happens when that society is threatened by the forces of darkness. It poses the question: How far should citizens of liberal democracies be prepared to go in their accommodation of those opposed to their way of life? To what extent should we tolerate the intolerant?
This, too, shouldn't put you off. Take Me Out is very far from being a boring civics lesson. The playwright, Richard Greenberg, manages to explore this difficult theme in a thoroughly accessible way, utilising every device in the theatrical tool box to keep the audience on its toes. Take Me Out is crammed with hilarious one-liners, sight gags, reveals--you name it, Greenberg's stuck it in. It's neatly divided into three acts and at the end of the first two acts there's even a cliffhanger so you're gagging to find out what happens next. Take Me Out is a meaty, substantial play that addresses one of the age old problems of American democracy, yet it's as entertaining as a prime time American television series. It's like a three-hour episode of The West Wing, currently the best thing on British TV.
A good deal of the credit must go to the cast who are uniformly excellent. Take Me Out is a co-production with the Joseph Papp Pubic Theater in New York and, for once, an American play has a completely American cast. Daniel Sunjata is effortlessly commanding as the charismatic baseball star and Frederick Weller manages to invest Shane Mungitt, the bigoted homophobe who reacts badly to Darren Lemming's announcement, with real malignance. Perhaps the best performance is delivered by Dennis O'Hare as a gay financial advisor. He's the stand-in for the author and serves as the play's emotional heart.
So why isn't Take Me Out as good as Lobby Hero? The main reason, I think, is because it's so one-sided in its treatment of its central theme. Greenberg wants us to come down firmly in favour of his own brand of hard-nosed, liberal fundamentalism. Rednecks like Shane Mungitt, he seems to be saying, have no place in modern, democratic societies. The trouble is, this point of view triumphs too easily; no one in the play articulates the other side of the argument. Take Me Out is like The Crucible without Deputy Governor Danforth.
Nevertheless, it's still a worthy finale to a brilliant season at the Domnar. The only contemporary British plays I've seen that can hold a candle to the best of these 'American Imports' are Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy, still playing at the Geilgud, and Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton, currently at the Cottesloe. But good as they are, Jones and Wright don't have the intellectual seriousness of the best contemporary American playwrights. Watching their plays, you don't get the sense, as you do with Take Me Out, that they're struggling to say something important about the way we live now. The only non-American play currently in the West End that attempts something similar is Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which has just transferred to the Garrick. But McDonagh has nothing like Richard Greenberg's intellectual depth. McDonagh is all sizzle and no steak, whereas Greenberg manages to serve up both in one mouth-watering combo. You have until 3 August to see it before it crosses the Atlantic.