For a judgment on "Out!," the drama at the New Playwrights' Theatre about the eight members of the Chicago White Sox who conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, let me refer you directly to one of the characters.
Arnold (Chick) Gandil is his name and he is trying to persuade his teammates to make a few crucial errors in the field -- nothing too obvious, just enough to tilt the Series in favor of Cincinnati. There's good money in it, he points out. The scheme is foolproof: Every ballplayer has his bad day. Then, turning to the audience, he clinches his cynical argument by observing, "Besides, in 50 years, who's going to care? Certainly not you."
He is, I fear, absolutely right on that count. The play that Lawrence Kelly has fashioned from skulduggery in the locker room is a dull and uninvolving affair, populated by half-formed characters spouting cliche's. The New Playwrights' cast rips into the script as if it were made of blood and guts. But the intensity of the performances, rather like shouting in an empty room, only underscores the hollowness of the writing.
The first act is largely concerned with Gandil's efforts to overcome the wavering rectitude of his fellow players. "God, I love America," he says. "Where else can you make a dishonest honest buck?" The second act gives us an impressionistic look at the rigged Series. Subsequently, one of the ballplayers, Eddie Cicotte (Austin Porter), has a severe attack of conscience and confesses to the authorities. The team is hauled before an investigating board, and the remainder of the evening consists of the men attempting to justify their crooked actions to one another and to themselves.
One is vaguely reminded of "That Championship Season," which looked at the members of a winning high school basketball team, years later, and found them morally and spiritually deficient. But unlike that play, which stood as a fierce indictment of the American way of corruption, "Out!" does not reverberate with particularly provocative implications.
There doesn't seem to be much point in having the characters address the audience directly, as Kelly does. What they have to say to us is no more than they have been saying to one another. The device merely emphasizes the artificiality of the play and the skimpiness of its psychology.
Each player is given two or three distinguishing traits, but in no way do the traits amount to full-bodied characterizations. T.J. Edwards as Oscar (Happy) Felsch proselytizes for the power of positive thinking and wears clashing plaids that make him look rather like a clown. Bill Whitaker as George (Buck) Weaver bubbles with boyish, sandlot enthusiasm. Arnie Mazer as Charles (Swede) Risberg is the possessor of an intimidating scowl and a hot temper, while Paul Christie as Gandil is the cool, calculating snake in the grass. So it goes, until a repentant John Elko ("Shoeless" Joe Jackson) dutifully hangs his head at the memory of a little kid pleading with him to "Say it ain't so, Joe!"
Under better circumstances, this cast wouldn't be half bad, but Kelly has given the actors so little to go on they are stranded in limbo a lot of the time. The most that director Peter Frisch can do is try to paper over the holes, a task at which he is only fitfully successful.
Thomas F. Donahue has designed the sets -- a locker room, where the losing strategy is hatched, and a miniature version of Comiskey Park, where it's put into action. The games are pantomimed, although at the outset of the play, the actors bound onstage and warm up by pitching a real baseball back and forth. They act better than they throw. Out! by Lawrence Kelly. Directed by Peter Frisch. Sets, Thomas F. Donahue; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Rosemary Pardee-Holz. With John Elko, T.J. Edwards, Steven John Evans, Bill Whitaker, Paul Christie, Arnie Mazer, Austin Porter and Mitchell Patrick. At the New Playwrights' Theatre, through Nov. 1.