On His Game

On His Game Denis O'Hare brings humor and warmth to his Tony-winning role of a man seduced by baseball in Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out
Denis O'Hare as Mason Marzac in Richard Greenerg's Take Me Out.
Denis O'Hare as Mason Marzac in Richard Greenerg's Take Me Out. Photo by Joan Marcus

In Mason Marzac's superb speech in Take Me Out about baseball as a metaphor for hope in a democratic society — that is to say, the superb speech Richard Greenberg wrote for Mason to relay to us like a shortstop pegging to first to catch the runner by a whisper — there occur these lines:

It has to do with the rules of play.

It has to do with the mode of enforcement of these rules.

It has to do with certain nuances and grace notes of the game . . .

Fortuitous words. If there was ever a performance of nuance and grace notes, it is the one that Denis O'Hare delivers eight times a week at the Walter Kerr Theatre as Mason Marzac, the bright, sensitive, insecure, closeted investment counselor who, unathletic as sin, has fallen in love — first with baseball, then with New York Empires center fielder Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata), the superstar whose casual disclosure of his own homosexuality has shaken up the whole known world. Somewhat less casual was O'Hare's ecstatic salute, on Tony Awards night, to Hugo Redwood, "my beautiful boyfriend," and a moment later to his parents, who "came all the way from Virginia" and were celebrating their fiftieth anniversary — "this is for you, for being so patient with your son."

Now, a week later, in the tiny cubbyhole that is Dressing Room 6, backstage at the Walter Kerr, the winner of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play props head on hand as he wryly admits to having gone to only four major-league baseball games in his whole life:

"Kansas City Royals [he was born in Kansas City], Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees. If I had to choose a favorite team," O'Hare allows, "it would be the Tigers." As a kid in a Detroit suburb he admired Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, the flaky pitcher who used to talk to the baseball and to pebbles, "and I liked Denny McLain because he had my name."

The single live exposure to the Yankees was when Take Me Out director Joe Mantello took the cast on an educational field trip to the stadium just before the start of rehearsals. "Jim Yaegashi [the actor who plays the lonely, non-English-speaking Japanese Empires pitcher] explained the game to me. He's a fanatic."

Who won? Long pause. Draws a blank. At length: "We didn't."

Only days before this conversation, the Yankees shockingly suffered an 8-0 no-hit defeat at the hands of no less than six different Houston Astros pitchers. "I didn't know that," says Marzac/O'Hare. "But if you ask me what's playing this weekend at BAM, I'll tell you it's Rameau's Les Boréades, conducted by William Christie." To opera buff O'Hare, the moment the chandeliers rise past the balconies to the ceiling at the Met is more thrilling than a hundred ball games. "Up, up, up!" — his expressive hands act it out, chandeliers, balconies and all.

The parents whom Denis thanked on Tony night are County Clare descendant John O'Hare, retired vice-president for labor relations of the Bendix, then Allied, corporations, and Karene Kennedy O'Hare, "of the Kentucky Kennedys, the horse people — my mom was a nurse and a church organist and is now a volunteer for everything." Their five offspring are "a nurse, a postal carrier, a speech therapist, a marketing guy — and me."

Denis was the one who was going to be a priest — "very serious about it until I was 17."

What happened at 17?

"Jean Paul Sartre. College. Bourbon."

College was Northwestern, "where I was trained to do Chekhov, and I have yet to do any." O'Hare's heroes are, in fact, Ben Franklin, Voltaire and Anton Chekhov — "the biggie" — plus Johann Sebastian Bach. He plays a lot of Bach on the piano at home in Brooklyn.

In Woody Allen's stunning "Sweet and Lowdown," O'Hare is clarinet sideman to Sean Penn's guitarist. Stage work here includes Ernst Ludwig, the glad-handing Nazi of Cabaret, and huge-bearded Peter, maddest of the Dostoevsky-spawned anarchists in Elizabeth Egloff's The Devils at New York Theatre Workshop. "I loved that character; he was so unlikable."

But now it's the altogether likable, if just slightly nerdy, Mason Marzac — he to whom Richard Greenberg has awarded not only a quasi-courtship with the Empires' star player, but those extraordinary lines about democracy and baseball itself. "It's funny," says O'Hare, "the more I do this play, the more I understand the depth of that monologue. Cherry Jones and I did Shaw's Major Barbara during the days of September 11. It was scary. Shaw's ideas really had teeth. Similarly, I think doing this play at this time in our democracy — a horrible time — for me, this play, too, has teeth."