Especially in spring, baseball is as full of promise as America’s lost wilderness must have been. Maybe the Cubs will win this year. Maybe the Yankees will tank. Baseball represents hope.

But in Richard Greenberg’s comedy Take Me Out, now in a crisp production by About Face Theatre in partnership with Steppenwolf, baseball exemplifies not only the best about America but the worst. Nominally a coming-out story, the play focuses on a Derek Jeter-style superstar, Darren Lemming, who plays for a powerhouse team, the Empires, reminiscent of the Yankees. This multiracial power hitter–a bit of an arrogant mystery since he’s never revealed much of his personal life to the public–considers himself untouchable because he’s so popular. He doesn’t really give much thought to coming out: he tells the team he’s gay in a quick ten-minute meeting, then goes before the press.

Being gay doesn’t really matter to Darren, partly because for him it’s just about sex. He doesn’t love men or a particular man–he loves baseball. As he tells his best friend, the earnest team intellectual Kippy (Kyle Hall in a beautifully modulated performance), “If I’m gonna have sex–and I am, because I’m young and rich and famous and talented and handsome, so it’s a law–I’d rather do it with a guy, but when all is said and done, Kippy? I’d just rather play ball.”

There’s not a lot to the character of Darren, played adequately by Derrick Nelson here. But his story is a tragic one, as hubris leads to his downfall. Though his teammates are supportive in public, in private, in the showers, they edge away from him (in all their full-frontal glory). The fans accuse him of defiling baseball. Attention shifts from his playing, which remains excellent, to his sexual orientation, which shakes the team so badly they start losing. By the end Darren no longer loves baseball, but he hasn’t replaced it with anything else.

Greenberg’s play is less about the tragic consequences of coming out, however, than it is about finding one’s individual path while working successfully with others–a refined form of the American dream. Characters speak often about being permitted to express what they believe, but that isn’t an uncomplicated process, as another character reveals. When Shane Mungitt (Kyle Hatley), a John Rocker-esque bigot, decides to share his racism and homophobia with the press, his teammates turn on him and he’s suspended.

Another character’s life has a different, more positive arc. Mason Marzac–Darren’s flamingly gay but mousy accountant–finds connection with others when he learns about baseball in order to meet his client’s needs. More comfortable with numbers than with people, Mason discovers that speaking baseball enables him to talk to cabdrivers and his five brothers. A stand-in for Greenberg himself, who’s admitted that he wrote the play because of a newborn obsession with the sport, Mason insists that baseball is better than America because everyone has an equal chance to win. He also says baseball is better than democracy: “Unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss. While conservatives tell you, ‘Leave things alone and no one will lose,’ and liberals tell you, ‘Interfere a lot and no one will lose,’ baseball says, ‘Someone will lose.’ . . . Democracy is lovely, but baseball’s more mature.” Tom Aulino steals the show in this funny, ebullient part, just as Northwestern alum Denis O’Hare did when I saw the play’s premiere in London in 2002.

Greenberg has tightened the script considerably since its London run, after which it played off-Broadway, then on Broadway, where it won a Tony for best play. There’s about a half hour less stage time in this production, which runs a brisk 140 minutes. The tragic twist in the second act and the events afterward don’t seem quite as believable–though it’s difficult to say whether that’s because of Greenberg’s cuts or Eric Rosen’s staging for About Face. Though the London version felt too long, the shorter one is a mixed blessing: I couldn’t help but regret the cuts in the dazzling dialogue and monologues. About Face’s show is considerably funnier and more relaxed, however. The actors make a fireworks display out of Greenberg’s smart, fiery language while managing to keep all the characters–even the reprehensible Shane Mungitt–sympathetic.

Greenberg’s clubhouse shows us America the way it is: fear of difference is disguised with false bonhomie and prejudice characterized as freedom of speech. It also shows us how things could be. Even at its darkest, Take Me Out is splashed with joy and imbued with hope. Tragedies may occur, but there’s always next year.

When: Through 5/1: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM. No show Sat 4/9.

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, upstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $35-$40

Info: 312-335-1650 (TTY 312-335-3830)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.