Baseball superstar Darren Lemming of the New York Empires would seem to have it made. Blessed with a physical beauty and athletic prowess most can only dream of, the biracial outfielder’s Golden Boy status has kept him above whatever bigotry a lesser man might likely have encountered in major league sports. So certain, in fact, is Darren of being above it all that when he comes out publicly as gay, he expects few if any repercussions from the announcement. Yes, other baseball players might suffer from the homophobia rampant in professional athletics, but not Darren Lemming—that is until pitcher Shane Mungitt arrives to rescue Darren’s loss-plagued team and all hell breaks loose.

Thus begins Richard Greenberg’s award-winning play Take Me Out, now getting its very first L.A. production since its West Coast Premiere at the Geffen six years ago—a 99-seat staging at the Celebration Theater that blows its predecessor out of the ball park.

It’s been a while since director extraordinaire Michael Matthews has had a script at the level of his formidable talents, but in Take Me Out he has just such a script. Matthews’ decision to stage Greenberg’s play in the round, thereby turning the Celebration into a mini baseball diamond, is an inspired one, and the lure of Take Me Out’s exquisitely delineated leading and supporting roles has attracted as fine an ensemble as the play has likely had since its Broadway debut. The result is an intimate staging that scores home run after home run, surpassing the Geffen’s again and again.

Denis O’Hare won the Tony for his performance as Mason Marzac, and my guess is that Thomas James O’Leary would have been a shoo-in for the same award had he originated the role. O’Leary (three years as the Phantom on Broadway amidst a sea of other New York and regional credits) gets Take Me Out’s plummest role, that of Darren’s business manager, a gay man who feels continually rejected by what ought to be his “community.” Watching O’Leary’s “Marz” blossom as a love for baseball gives his life fresh meaning and purpose is a joy to behold. In a role that could easily go over the top in lesser hands, the actor gives us three dimensions and countless layers and colors while never sacrificing believability. This is the comedic performance to beat this year, all the more so because in O’Leary’s hands, the role ends up being so much more than just comic relief.

Sharing narrator duties with Mason “Marz” Marzak is Christopher “Kippy” Sunderstrom, Darrin’s best friend among the Empires, played here by the marvelous Tom Costello. Costello’s too is a performance to celebrate, a salt-of-the-earth guy that everyone would want to have as his or her bff, and the rock on which Take Me Out is built.

Ary Katz’s casting as Darren is another stroke of genius and luck. The strikingly handsome young actor demonstrates a talent that matches his runway-model looks, making the baseball superstar’s high self-esteem seem entirely justified all the while showing us glimpses of vulnerability in a man who realizes that despite his fame and fortune, there are few in his life he can call friend. No wonder the audience delights in the improbable but entirely believable friendship that blooms between Darren and Marz.

Garrett Matheson makes an indelible impression as Shane Mungett, the walking-wounded victim of a monstrous childhood whose casual but very public remark that “I don’t mind the colored people—the gooks an’ the spic an’ the coons an like that, but every night t’have’ta take a shower with a faggot” ends Act One with a wallop, provoking tragic consequences. Matheson so disappears into Mungett’s ugly, pathetic, yet always human skin that it’s hard to believe one is witnessing an actor at work, yet this too is a superb performance, Matheson resisting any temptation to soften Mungett yet somehow allowing our hearts to break for him.

The roles of Darren’s teammates are equally well served by Matthews’ topnotch cast. Blond, blue-eyed boy-next-door Rick Cosnett has great fun with self-contradictory Toddy, who complains to Darren about having to “go about worrying that every time I’m naked or dressed or whatever you’re checking out my ass,” all the while standing buck naked in front of him. A hilarious scene, beautifully played by both Cosnett and Katz. Duke Dlouhy’s superhero face, body-to-die-for, and delightful comedic talents make him a perfect choice to play cute but slightly dim-witted Jason, the well-meaning Empires catcher who tries to prove himself on Darren’s side with tales of “the Grecians.” (According to Jason, they not only had man-on-man sex, but “they made … the pyramids” as well!) Eiji Inoue makes for a powerful Takeshi, the Japanese pitcher who has made a studied effort not to learn English, for reasons he reveals to us in his native language miraculously translated by Kippy. On the other hand, the casting of an authentic Japanese as Takeshi means that the catcher’s Act Three English-language monolog, which we are meant to hear as if we were suddenly privy to Japanese language skills and understanding Takeshi in his own language, loses its surprise punch because what we get is Inoue speaking English As A Second Language, something which we have been told time and time again Takeshi cannot do. DeLaRosa and Marco Antonio Garcia make strong impressions in their cameos as the team’s two Spanish speakers. Veteran actor Biff Yeager is a joy to watch as crusty team manager Skipper.

Completing the cast in the pivotal role of rival team player and born-again Christian Davey Battle is a terrific Jacques C. Smith in a night-and-day turnaround from his Pasadena Playhouse star musical turns in Purlie and Blue. With the kind of smug certainty in his own (self)-righteousness that no amount of logic or reason can sway, Smith gives us a Davey who is arguably scarier and more dangerous than Matheson’s Shane, and a redoubtable friend-turned-foe to Darren.

Sitting enthralled by Matthews’ brilliant you-are-there re-envisioning of Take Me Out, this reviewer was more impressed than ever by just what a brilliant piece of writing this is, playwright Greenberg seamlessly blending gut-splitting comedic and heart-rending dramatic moments while surprising the audience again and again with unexpected twists and turns of both plot and character.

It seems hard to believe that this is Take Me Out’s first in-the-round staging, but leave it to Matthews to make other directors’ visions seem dull by comparison. The Chicago-to-L.A. transplant is that rarity, an actor’s director who is equally gifted at transporting a playwright’s words from page to stage in ways that would astound even a writer who thinks he knows everything there is to know about his work.

Take Me Out gives Matthews the chance to be reunited, to sensational effect, with scenic designer Kurt Boetcher and lighting designer Tim Swiss. Boetcher’s four-sided set is the next best thing to watching the play in an actual baseball stadium, albeit on a considerably smaller scale, and Swiss lights the stage with banks of stadium kliegs, an absolutely inspired choice. Scenes where actors mimic baseball plays have the look and feel of the real thing, aided in great measure by Veronica J. Lancaster’s striking sound design, which has us hearing every smack of invisible bat against invisible ball. Costume designer E.B. Brooks’ Empires uniforms and Marz’s delightfully evolving wardrobe are perfect choices as well. Properties designer Michael O’Hara is in charge of the play’s many excellent props. Director Matthews is assisted by Jim Halloran, and Marcedes Clanton is production stage manager, assisted by Nathaniel Mathis.

As for the play’s much publicized nudity, yes indeed, Take Me Out does have more than the average amount of naked flesh onstage, but wonder of wonders, it’s probably the least gratuitous display of extended Full Frontal Nudity of any play I can think of. Greenberg simply could not have told the story of Darren Lemming’s coming out and the reactions of his teammates to it without taking the action into the locker room and showers—precisely because that is where the phobia in this particular brand of homophobia lies, in straight players’ fear of being ogled, grabbed, or worse in their most private of sanctums. And as for the shower scenes, there is indeed water and steam, transforming the Celebration stage into the nearest thing to an actual locker room shower. (That the actors all look great naked is icing on the cake, and don’t say you don’t care!)

The Celebration has planned a longer than usual run for Take Me Out, a clear sign of their faith in the play, its director, and its cast—faith well placed considering just how superb this production has turned out. I was a Take Me Out fan before seeing it at the Celebration. I’m now every bit as much a fanatic of Greenberg’s prize-winner as Mason “Marz” Marzak is of his beloved New York Empires, and that is saying one heck of a lot.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
September 30, 2010
Photos: Michael Calas

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