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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Take Me Out at Philadelphia Theatre Company

With the many awards that playwright Richard Greenberg won for Take Me Out in 2003 (the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, etc.), it was probably inevitable that productions would be mounted from coast to coast. When you factor in the buzz that the show received due to its treatment of a controversial subject, homosexuality in Major League Baseball - plus the notoriety the play incurred due to the nudity in its locker room scenes - it's not surprising that theater companies in Boston, Washington, and now Philadelphia would be staging the show simultaneously.

So now the show has opened at Philadelphia Theatre Company, and the question must be asked: is it worth all the hype? The answer is a resounding yes. Take Me Out is a great play - not because of its "hot-button" topic, but because it uses that topic as the springboard for a variety of subjects that have lasting resonance. From the importance of compassion to the social significance of the home run trot, Take Me Out has a lot to say, and thanks to Greenberg's beautiful dialogue and James J. Christy's graceful direction, the meaning comes through loud and clear.

Take Me Out tells the story of Darren Lemming, a superstar - as his friend Kippy puts it, one of those "people of color routinely adulated by people of pallor" - who shocks his teammates and legions of fans when he announces that he's gay. Darren figures it's not a big deal because nothing bad can happen to him; after all, he's a baseball star. He does get unequivocal support from Kippy and from most of his other teammates, but it does change the dynamic of his world-championship team. For one thing, there are the suspicious looks directed at Kippy and Darren when they're exercising together. And, even when Darren isn't around, the team showers don't seem as innocent and communal as they used to.

Against the odds, Darren remains a star, especially to his nebbishy new accountant, Mason Marzac. Mason views Darren as a hero, and his crush on Darren soon evolves into a love affair - not with Darren, but with baseball. In the play's best scene, Mason delivers a soliloquy on why baseball is "a metaphor of hope in a democratic society":

"... it has no clock. What can be more generous? ... And baseball is better than democracy - or at least than democracy as it's practiced in this country - because unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss. While conservatives tell you 'leave things alone and no one will lose,' and liberals tell you 'interfere a lot and no one will lose,' baseball says 'someone will lose.' Not only says it - but insists upon it! ... Democracy is lovely, but baseball's more mature."

Not everyone is as big a Darren Lemming fan as Mason is, though. Shane Mungitt, a fast-pitching but slow-thinking new recruit, makes a bigoted statement to the press that causes controversy throughout the league. And Davey, Darren's close friend from a rival team, turns against him because of his religious-based objection to homosexuality. Before long, these three people end up on a violent collision course that will transform them all.

Richard Greenberg's dialogue is consistently sharp, clever and funny, and the plot twists are often genuinely surprising. Not everything in the play works, however; Greenberg's attempts to develop subplots don't pan out. For example, a few of the minor characters - a Japanese player and two Hispanics - seem designed to demonstrate how universal the transforming power of sports is, yet their scenes are too brief and the point is not as profound as Greenberg seems to think it is. In addition, some characters seem too conveniently smart and others too conveniently dumb. One of the ballplayers, Toddy, proclaims "I am not enlightened - I pride myself on that"; it's a funny line, but his character seems to exist only to make the smart guys look smarter as they make fun of him. (Fortunately, these moments are brief and don't distract much from the main story.)

The bigoted pitcher Shane seems as much of a hick cartoon as Toddy at first, but as Darren and Kippy attempt to learn more about him, Shane reveals unexpected depths that make the resolution of the play even more tragic. And Darren and Kippy are not the saints they appear to be, either; revelations late in the play cast interesting questions on their motivations. Like the play itself, these characters have an unexpected richness.

Christy's direction is excellent; the camaraderie and antagonism among the players seems honest, and the actors really do seem like members of a team, ready to band together despite their conflicts. Todd Rosenthal's set design is elegant, and he even incorporates the back wall of Plays and Players Theatre into the design in a clever way.

David Whalen is excellent as Kippy, who narrates the play but is more judgmental than he initially appears. Josh Shirley makes Shane fascinating and sympathetic, and Tom McCarthy has a nice, easygoing manner as the team's stolid but strict manager.

Jacques Cowart II plays Darren with a bit too much emotional detachment. Cowart has the cocky and arrogant manner of many sports heroes down pat, but rarely seems as conflicted as a person in his position would be. In one scene Darren tells Mason that he's thinking of quitting baseball, but he never seems conflicted about his choice; as a result, he appears insensitive. It's an interesting way to play Darren, but it makes one wonder why so many people love him.

One person who's not hard to love is Mason Marzac, as played by Kraig Swartz. Swartz grabs hold of the audience's affections with his big baseball speech, then never lets them go. When Cowart feeds him a straight line, Swartz often waits to deliver his response until after he has turned to the audience with a deadpan take reminiscent of Jack Benny. With his hesitant yet precise diction and his superb comic timing, Swartz comes off as a younger, leaner version of Broadway and TV actor Richard Kind. He deserves to be just as successful.

It's great to see a play that lives up to its reputation. Take Me Out has a wonderful balance of heartbreaking tragedy and hysterical comedy, of flashy surface and deep insight. (How many meanings does that title have, anyway?) Philadelphia Theatre Company's production lets this important play shine brilliantly.

Take Me Out runs through Sunday, June 19 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street. Ticket prices range from $30 to $50, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com, or by visiting the box office.

Take Me Out
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by James J. Christy
Set Design: Todd Rosenthal
Lighting Design: Ann G. Wrightson
Costume Design: Pamela Scofield
Sound Design: Matt Callahan
Dramaturg: Warren Hoffman
Stage Manager: Rachel R. Bush
Casting: Alan Filderman, Lois Kitz

CAST:
Jacques Cowart II ... Darren
Kraig Swartz ... Mason
David Whalen ... Kippy
Josh Shirley ... Shane
Nathan Hinton ... Davey
Tom McCarthy ... Skipper/Danziger
John Lumia .. Toddy
Ivan Sanchez ... Rodriguez
Armando Batista ... Martinez
James Chen ... Kawabata
Todd Gebhart ... Jason


-- Tim Dunleavy



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