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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Take Me Out
Nearly Naked Theatre


David Nelson, Eric Boudreau and Jaime Gaeta
Richard Greenberg's play Take Me Out created quite a stir when it premiered Off-Broadway in 2002, due to the amount of male nudity in that production. After a London run, the production moved to Broadway in the spring of 2003 and swept all of the major awards, including winning the Tony Award for Best Play. Take Me Out's main theme deals with homosexuality in professional sports, but the drama touches upon many other things too, from race and bigotry to male bonding and how baseball is basically a metaphor for life. I saw the show with both the original Off-Broadway and Broadway companies and I'm happy to report that the Nearly Naked Theatre Company's current production of the play is on par with those productions. It is well directed and designed, with a fairly good cast and effective staging in an intimate space, and the play still resonates today.

Set over one baseball season, Greenberg's play tells the story of gay, mixed-race, major league center fielder Darren Lemming, who comes out of the closet at the peak of his stardom, and the aftermath that decision has on his friends, teammates and the fans. Shortly after Darren's announcement, his team, the New York Empires, start losing, so management brings a relief pitcher up from the minor leagues. That player, Shane Mungitt, is bigoted and socially ignorant, but his presence helps the team win games. However, the racist and homophobic remarks Mungitt makes in a TV interview set off a whirlwind of controversy for his teammates and bring even more tension to the strained relationship between Darren and Mungitt, which ultimately ends in tragedy.

Greenberg has the racial make-up of the team comprised of black, Hispanic, Asian and white teammates and he establishes the intelligence level of the players across a wide range, thus representing a microcosm of America. And Greenberg has Darren's friend Davey approach the topic of Darren being gay from the anti-gay religious right, which counters the general acceptance Darren receives from most of his teammates. In doing so, Take Me Out represents various views and opinions of homosexuality. However, it is ultimately a play about the consequences of the choices one makes in a changing modern world set against the old fashioned world of baseball.

The intimacy of the Hardes Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre works beautifully with director Damon Dering effectively using the entire stage to portray the various locations of the play. He has also assembled a competent cast for the production. While they are all about five to fifteen years younger than the original Broadway cast, with most in their early to mid-twenties, the majority of the cast have the physiques of in-shape baseball players, and the chemistry of a team is apparent. So, while they may be less experienced actors they actively portray a close knit baseball team.

Jaime Gaeta is Darren; he is handsome, athletic and charismatic, so he perfectly looks and acts the part of a multi-millionaire star baseball player, but he also easily portrays the arrogant and smug characteristics that "god-like" Darren exhibits. "I'd rather just play ball" is a line that Darren says when confronted about his "matter of fact" attitude about coming out, as he believes, since he is a superstar player with many fans, that his coming out will cause a minimal ripple. Gaeta does a lovely job in making us see the man who becomes more human and less godly as the events of the play unfold.

Many of the characters, particularly Darren's gay business manager Mason Marzac and his friend and teammate Kippy Sunderstrom, speak directly to the audience, providing narration about the events and delivering inner monologues. Kippy serves as the main narrator of the play and provides plenty of commentary about the actions and consequences that he and the other characters make. David Nelson is Kippy, and like Gaeta he has the look and body of an athlete. Kippy is very intelligent and Nelson does an expert job in not sounding too condescending or preachy when explaining complicated things to his less intelligent teammates. Kippy is Darren's best friend on the team and has no problem with Darren being gay. Nelson is charming, caring and completely loveable as Kippy, especially in the way he speaks to Darren after he learns the news.

Eric Boudreau inhibits Mason with a sense of whimsy. With his huge hand gestures and loud, animated way of speaking, Boudreau's somewhat stereotypically gay mannerisms stick out compared to the rest of the cast. However, it perfectly captures how Mason sees things in life, from his dedicated focus on making his clients rich to his new found joy of baseball. He relishes life. However, he also quickly establishes himself as a gay outsider, something that makes his relationship with Darren very believable, since Darren is an outsider as well. Due to this, the scenes between Mason and Darren show a sweet side to both characters. Mason's monologue about baseball's relationship to democracy and the pageantry and celebratory nature of the home-run trot is very well delivered. Boudreau's passion in playing Mason is completely in sync with Mason's passion about the art of baseball.

As Shane, Aaron Blanco has a tough role to portray. Not only is he the play's main antagonist, but he is racist and homophobic and so uneducated that he can barely put a sentence together. Blanco is impressive in his abilities to make us care somewhat for him, even with all of his negative character traits.

David Weiss' set design, Clare Burnett's lighting and Damon Dering's costumes are all simple yet cleanly designed and effective. Weiss, who also appears in the cast as the team's manager, and does a fine job in that role, has created a set that, when combined with Burnett's lighting, evokes various locations from the team's locker room, the playing field and Mason's apartment. Dering's costumes for the team are perfect.

Nearly Naked first presented Take Me Out back in 2006 and this production is the season's entry in their series of encore presentations of past hits.

As previously mentioned, Take Me Out originally sparked a lot of controversy and attention over the use of full male nudity in two shower scenes, one humorous and the other dramatic, and the Nearly Naked production doesn't shy away from using the nudity to accurately show their relevance. While somewhat lurid, both scenes work brilliantly, especially the comical one that shows how the male dynamic of locker room bonding can be turned on its ear by the simple fact that one of the players is gay.

Greenberg's play is ambitious but unfortunately leaves some questions unanswered, and a few actions that the main characters make aren't exactly clearly explained. It also isn't quite as moving or inspiring as it originally was. This is possibly due to several professional athletes who have come out in the past 12 years, even though no major ballplayers came out while they were still actively playing the sport like Darren does in the play. There is also the fact of changing views of homosexuals and more acceptance of gay rights during the past twelve years, especially same sex marriage. However, this is still an effective play, as the topic and themes of racism, bigotry and acceptance remain relevant today. The Nearly Naked Theatre Company production has a good cast, clear creative elements and effective direction.

Take Me Out runs through February 1st with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at nearlynakedtheatre.org

Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Damon Dering
Scenic Design: David Weiss
Lighting Design: Clare Burnett
Sound Design: Casey Weiler
Properties Design: Dawn Conry & Jay Templeton
Costume Design: Damon Dering
Stage Manager: Kristen Burkhart

Cast:
Kippy Sunderstrom: David Nelson
Darren Lemming: Jaime Gaeta
Mason Marzac: Eric Boudreau
Shane Mungitt: Aaron Blanco
Skipper/Danziger: David Weiss
Jason Chenier: Ryan Showell
Toddy Koovitz: Jordan Dettmann
Takeshi Kawabata: Alberto Ley
Martinez: Jesus Rodriguez
Rodriguez: Ross Columbia
Davey Battle: DeJean Brown


Photo: Laura Durant

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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