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Bats and Balls

Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, now in its Florida premiere at the Caldwell Theatre, is nothing if not ambitious. Its subjects are wide-ranging -- among them, major league baseball, gay identity, prejudice, and tolerance -- and so are its genres. The play wants to be both a pressure-cooker drama and a gay comedy. That it is only partially successful didn't prevent it from garnering a Tony for best new play as well as a string of other major awards during its Broadway run last season. Certainly, its story line is timely. The world champion Empires, a team bearing more than a little resemblance to the New York Yankees, are driving for a third consecutive championship, but their season is in jeopardy when team members learn that their star player, Darren Lemming, is gay. Darren's pal Kippy Sunderstrom is proud that Darren has the courage to reveal his true identity, but most of the players are hostile, and the team's performance tanks. Darren himself is serene -- he has faced prejudice before as a biracial man. He is who he is, and that's the end of it.

Darren may be out of the closet, but he's not out of the clubhouse -- the team keeps the whole conflict under wraps until a loopy new relief pitcher named Shane Mungitt goes on a televised attack on gays, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians (the team has a Japanese pitcher). As a result, Darren not only loses the friendship of his black conservative pal Davey Battle, a star slugger on a rival team, but he's suddenly considered a victim of prejudice, a position he hates. Meanwhile, though, Darren begins an oddball friendship with his new accountant, Mason Marzac, a milquetoast, buttoned-down guy who's as repressed and tentative about his homosexuality as Darren is open and assured about his. Mason, whom Darren nicknames Mars, is thrilled to be working with Darren and soon falls for baseball itself, waxing rhapsodic about its virtues and allure. All along, though, a showdown is building as Shane, who has been suspended from the team for his remarks, prepares to return to the team as the World Series nears.

The play is told in a jumpy, nonlinear format, linked by narration from Kippy. Largely set in the Empires' locker rooms and on the ball field, the play calls for full frontal male nudity and mimed baseball action, but physicality is not the real focus here. Talk is. The entire first act is devoted to a dialogue-heavy setup of the characters and how they deal with Darren's sexual identity -- a revelation that has occurred before the play begins. Take Me Out may be about baseball, but it's structured like a basketball game -- it heats up only in the last 24 minutes, as a series of dramatic confrontations leads to and away from a surprising death that may or may not have been accidental.

The Caldwell production is well-acted and visually striking. Tim Bennett delivers an impressive set -- a forest-green structure with a looming scoreboard. It uses rolling platforms to create the many locations, locker rooms and showers chief among them. Thomas Salzman's painterly lighting is particularly effective, a series of pools of light with impressionistic streaks of color. The acting ensemble is solid and solidly built -- the shower scenes, lit in chiaroscuro by Salzman, resemble classic sculpture. As Darren, Sebastian LaCause anchors the production. With a dynamic presence and a powerful body, he's thoroughly plausible as a baseball demigod. Other standouts are Michael Shelton as Kippy the avuncular peacemaker and Michael Polak as Shane, the prejudiced pitcher with more than one screw loose. Polak is particularly memorable in the second act when Shane experiences a breakdown -- you can see the man falling apart beat by beat. Best of all is Gary Cowling as the effete, geeky Mason, a thoroughly charming comedic turn that's a welcome and effective antidote to the dramatic doings. Mason has most of the play's best lines (the character appears to be a wish fulfillment stand-in for the author), and Cowling's timing is superb.

It's the blend of light comedy and disturbing drama that distinguishes Take Me Out and goes some way toward explaining its critical acclaim. But while the play is superior, it is not stellar. Had Greenberg made the gay comedy the main story instead of the subplot, Take Me Out would have had more appeal. As it is, though, the play is intended as a serious drama about homophobia and racism in a male work community. Without giving away any more of the plot, let it be said that the underlying logic of Greenberg's tale is weak -- things happen, but not necessarily causally, and what all of this is supposed to mean remains murky.

The production also has weaknesses. For a story so centered on locker room reality, this one doesn't have much. The details, the rituals of sports life, are missing -- the taping of injuries, the fiddling with gloves and equipment. These actor/players look the same before and after each game -- no one gets dirty or injured; no one plays hurt -- and the mimed pitching, hitting, and catching look much less than major league. The staging lacks spatial dynamic -- most scenes consist of characters standing in isolated spotlights, and certain critical moments -- notably the death scene -- are staged so cursorily that they lack much impact. With the exception of Mason, the characterizations are flat. The gay and gay-friendly characters are all erudite in exactly the same way, using the same vocabulary and rhythms, while the straight teammates are caricatures -- stupid Southerners, inscrutable Japanese, macho Hispanics. This show doesn't score a grand slam, but it does knock out a double.

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Ronald Mangravite

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