Take Me Out
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 6, 2006
Gallery Players hits one out of the park with their production of Take Me Out (or scores a home run, or pitches a perfect game: fill in the baseball metaphor of your choice). Seriously, I saw the original Take Me Out twice—once off-Broadway and once on—and in neither case was the play presented with the clarity and emotional heft of this production. Director Tom Wojtunik and his terrific ensemble cast have done an expert job with Richard Greenberg's ambitious and occasionally unwieldy script.
The play is focused on a fictitious New York City baseball team called the Empires, a team with a great record and a great star, a fellow named Darren Lemming whose charmed existence is the stuff of legend, or fairy tales. Darren is rich, successful, adored by fans, and, as the product of a mixed marriage, racial icon and role model. And then one day, Darren decides to "out" himself, announcing to the world, without warning (and without precipitating incident) that he is gay. Take Me Out follows the ricochet effects of this announcement throughout the remainder of an eventful baseball season.
These effects turn out to be significant, dangerous, and, ultimately, life-changing. From his naive and untouchable golden-boy perch, Darren doesn't anticipate that anything is going to be different, but he's wrong, of course. Fans start to recoil. Teammates start to feel uncomfortable around him in the locker room. Morale starts to sag. And the team starts to lose.
A relief pitcher from the minor leagues, an undereducated mutt named Shane Mungit, is brought in, and thanks to his powerful arm the Empires start to win again. But when Shane goes on record as disliking having to work with "coloreds" and "faggots," Darren becomes furious. In fact, he contacts his business manager, Mason Marzac, to find out if he can afford to retire right this minute. Marzac, speaking on behalf of the outside world (for he and a legion of other gay men have become Empires fans on the heels of Darren's startling revelation of his sexuality), talks him out of it. But there are still more disastrous events to come.
Take Me Out takes in a great many themes during its 2-1/2 hour running time; the title is revealed to refer to (a) the notion of "outing" a gay man, (b) the idea of "taking someone out" in the sense of eliminating or killing them, (c) the concept of "taking someone out" of themselves by giving them a higher cause to believe in, and (d) the game of baseball itself, via allusion to the popular song that starts "Take me out to the ballgame..." All of these ideas get aired in the play, though not always with great precision or clarity: Greenberg's attempt to use baseball as a meaningful metaphor for America/democracy is clumsy and inconclusive at best; his exploitation of the gay/homophobia card feels similarly gimmicky rather than well-thought-out.
But there's a throbbing human heart beating inside this play, or eleven of them; that's the revelation that Wotjunik and his committed cast provide to us here. The actors are, in general, much younger than their Broadway counterparts were, which makes the naivete of the characters more palatable and more understandable. Noshir Dalal's Darren, in particular, registers vividly and emphatically: he shows us, at the outset, just how unexamined this superstar's life has been heretofore, which explains why he's so blasé about making a big splash without first testing the waters, and also why the resulting impact hits him so darned hard. Dalal centers the play urgently; it's a terrific performance by a young actor whom we hope to hear more from.
As Kippy Sunderstrom, Darren's best friend on the team, Jonathan C. Kaplan is similarly excellent. Theatre-goers may remember Kaplan from when he was just 12, as the son in the Broadway musical Falsettos (for which he received a Tony nomination); he's grown into a fine young actor with a warm, intelligent, ebullient presence that's just right for this character.
Jamil Mena, Miguel Romero, Joe Morretti, Nobuo Inubushi, and Kit Wannen fill out the Empires' jerseys with requisite humor and earthiness; Inubushi, who plays Kawabata, the Japanese pitcher whose only English is "Strike One, Strike Two," is particularly adept at capturing the alienation and loneliness of a man who has sold his soul to do the one thing he loves. Peter Hawk is splendid as Mungit, underplaying his coarse dopiness and emphasizing instead how much he has in common with Kawabata; he almost makes this villainous character sympathetic.
Rounding out the company, as the outsiders, are John Kudan, who plays the Empires' coach but is particularly effective in one scene as a disappointed Lemming fan named William R. Danziger; Ron Brice, who is intense and vivid as Davey Battle, a religious black player who is Darren's best friend; and Scott McGowan in the play's showiest role of Mason Marzac, here thankfully reined in by director Wojtunik, allowing Darren's story arc to take centerstage in the proceedings.
The set design by Cully Long is simple and ingenious: two banks of lockers that can be rolled on or off to create the ball park or other locations as needed; other design credits (David Withrow's costumes, Travis I. Walker's lighting, Aaron David Blank's sound) are quite effective. One of the smartest decisions Wojtunik has made is to dispense with the play's notorious shower scenes, which here are performed in pantomime and without a lick of fuss: the actors are naked for a few moments, but the gratuitousness is pretty much eliminated.
Throughout, this staging sacrifices big-picture flaunting in favor of a genuine emotional and physical intimacy that's not only welcome but seems to strengthen the play's humanity. The motivations of the various characters and the relationships among them all registered more clearly in this production than in the previous two I've seen; as they have done frequently in the past, Gallery Players has managed with this Take Me Out to take a contemporary classic-in-the-making and really let audiences see it for what it is, with purity and simplicity.