I once heard a nonfan make a compelling argument that baseball is the most boring game on Earth. "The only time something exciting happens," he said, "it's because somebody made a mistake."
Fortunately for those of us who appreciate high drama, in baseball as in life, somebody always makes a mistake. Figuring out just who screwed up (and where, and the most royally) is the investigative through line of Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg's 2002 examination of big-league identity politics that's currently enjoying a tremendous interpretation at Theatre Downtown.
A mélange of soul-searching monologues and heated exchanges, the play turns on a fateful press conference given by Darren Lemming (Dexter Williams), a top-earning center fielder for the fictitious New York Empires. With little fanfare, Lemming announces that he's homosexual — and the world around him does its level best not to change. Correctly assessing how deeply our modern society values the illusion of tolerance, Greenberg has Lemming's revelation inspire a smattering of PC fawning in the Empires front office and mild curiosity from the public at large. Yes, there are a few moments of homophobic tension in the locker room, but they're depicted as comedically pathetic and thus essentially harmless.
The real threat to the Empires' harmony is the arrival of Shane Mungitt (John Bateman), a pitcher brought up from the minor leagues and carrying with him some noxious attitudes. In his own comments to the press, the usually nonverbal Mungitt issues a torrent of invective against a laundry list of minorities — including gays like the one on his team. Suddenly, Lemming's orientation has real consequences: By putting him on the defensive, Mungitt has made him the poster boy he never sought to be.
The contrast between the two men shows Greenberg's eagerness to thwart assumptions. Lemming, who is not only gay but of mixed race, has nonetheless lived a life free of hardship, freeing him to cultivate a godlike sense of self-importance. Mungitt, meanwhile, comes from true Cracker tragedy, making him far more able to claim disenfranchisement.
Did somebody say "microcosm"? The wonderful Tommy Keesling, who plays Lemming's milquetoast accountant, gets to deliver a stirring monologue in which he lauds the game of baseball as democracy at its finest. But Greenberg constructs such metaphors largely to knock them over — right down to the play's title, which, despite appearances, is neither a truncated bleacher chant nor a reference to a celebrity "outing" himself. Instead, it's a cry for relief from the responsibilities of the role model, an athlete's plea to be "taken out" of the opinion-making sphere so he can just shut up and play ball.
That's not going to happen in the 21st century, and especially not when there are men around like Kippy Sunderstrom (Daniel Cooksley), Lemming's best friend on the Empires. Introduced to us as "the most intelligent man in major league baseball" (and therefore freeing Greenberg to float all manner of poetics in a locker-room setting), Kippy is a learned man convinced that life's difficulties start to crumble when everybody is free to voice his feelings. No local actor is better than Cooksley at demonstrating the folly of such ideas via soliloquy; his perfectly verbalized flirtations with disaster make Kippy the perfect foil to Bateman's Mungitt, depicted here as a grunting animal trapped in a situation beyond his ken. (The character's prejudices may be pure John Rocker, but Bateman gives him the mountain-man impenetrability of onetime Astros behemoth Charlie Kerfeld.)
Williams, who as a real-life player for Bethune-Cookman College is no stranger to the diamond, likewise makes a strong showing as Lemming. There's a slight disconnect, though, between his performance and the scripted depiction of the character, who we're repeatedly told is frustratingly "remote" (i.e., enough of a cipher for a clubhouse full of fellows to hang their fears, dreams and expectations on). That's a tough portrayal for any actor to nail — distant yet still involving — and it's no shame that Williams goes instead for a middle ground of good-guy affability, which is almost as effective in demonstrating that Lemming's orientation is not the issue. On its own terms, it's a leading turn to be proud of.
Director Frank Hilgenberg, as he did in a fondly recalled production of 1 a few seasons back, again gets the best out of an overwhelmingly male cast, marshaling actors of varying backgrounds and experience levels to uniform (no pun intended) excellence. Hilgenberg has also sensibly cut back on the full-frontal nudity that was a hallmark of the show's New York runs, retaining enough of it to support the subtheme of homoerotic fascination but elsewhere employing carefully positioned shower screens to keep the focus on Greenberg's words.
Ruminative yet suspenseful, socially useful but never just that … this is theater on a par with the finest Orlando has to offer. Take your base, boys.
TAKE ME OUT