With previous plays produced by major companies in San Francisco, Chicago,and New York, as well as a celebrity-studded production of his Three Days of Rain at the Donmar in 1999, Richard Greenberg is not exactly a new arrival on the theatrical scene. His earlier work, focused on the wonder and agony of American family life, has led him now to present a dozen male characters so isolated from any family or other social connection that it's difficult to think how they bond tightly enough to play the baseball games their team are supreme at winning. But champs they are, led to glorious super-stardom by their chief player and all-American boy Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata) -- until he announces to the eager media he's gay. His utter self-confidence, that most prized of American virtues guaranteeing success, suddenly discomposes his teammates and unearths some of the cruder seams of the male, and national, psychic substrata. This suddenly very American pseudo-family are now riven with fear and hostility, and the team begin to see themselves as losers, an unthinkable horror in the cultural economy. The conflict becomes both racial and sexual when one unpopular team member lashes out publicly against Lemming, who is of mixed race, as a 'coon' and 'faggot'. Violence will be the perhaps too predictable avenue of resolution. Greenberg tries to upend that expectation with interesting twists, intended to startle. But in keeping the audience off-guard, he still lapses into an unremarkable moralism: the vicious impulses of the latter-day frontier inevitably consume the good and the brave.
It's a leisurely unfolding, with two old-fashioned intervals to punctuate the agon. The setting is stark, a bare stage meant to suggest variously a ball park, a changing room, and in two notable scenes that deliver the entire team respendently naked before the audience, a shower room, complete with spigots, spray, soap, and sexual tension. One hesitates to imagine the disaster that might have prevailed on the Donmar stage had the cast been British impersonators of Americans. But this joint production with the New York Public Theater has permitted director Joe Mantello an all-American cast. The Southern characters, whose ignorant drawls and stereotypes the actors get almost wilfully wrong, are matched by the Spanish and Japanese-speaking members of the team, mere ciphers to illustrate the melting pot that is baseball. Because they function less as characters than as elements in a cultural thesis, the point is clear. Who but young American men demonstrate such ease with their bodies? And who but young American men turn on one another, or for that matter the rest of the world, if their sense of deserved privilege or narcissistic vanity is challenged?
Greenberg stands in the line of Arthur Miller and David Mamet in depicting the costs of American male dominance, not just to women but also to men. Also like his countrymen who have cast light on the grim recesses of the national soul, Greenberg has confected a special and recognisable dialogue. But unlike Miller or Mamet, he creates no echo chamber of the American argot. Instead he wrings from his characters a studied repartee. Indeed much of his dialogue in this and his other plays derives from the English arch-wit mode. These baseball players, especially the lead Darren and his confidantes, speak with defiantly eloquent irony, quite at odds with both the playwright's native naturalistic tradition and the working-class vernacular we might have expected of athletes. Greenberg also gives us multiple thematic skeins, although, to his credit, not romantic love, that staple of the stage. He pulls us in half a dozen directions -- gender, race, class, to be sure, but also success, sport, stardom -- probably too many for one play. Yet Greenberg's is an original American voice, a product of an Anglo-American stage tradition he is helping to invent. That he is aided by an able team at the Donmar (Daniel Sunjata is himself destined for stardom, heaven help him, for he emanates magnetic self-possession) should mean the London theatre will hear from Greenberg again soon. Meanwhile on this tiny stage, we are left with robust impressions: an array of American articulations, of naked and vulnerable men unable to grasp the consequences of their power, and of a sadness that seems to emerge from a society that barely knows itself or its strengths.