Baseball: the national pastime. In a field filled with dreams, nothing seems more blissful than hearing the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, and the feeling when our home team has scored another run. The smell of roasted peanuts and the camaraderie of good friends cheering makes any day of baseball (even when losing) a good time shared by all.
But looking past all that, there is a darker side to this sport. While players are worshipped for their God-given talents, most people don’t realize that baseball players are human - and humans have lives of their own, plus they have to deal with the ramifications of their actions when such issues are revealed.
So break out the Planters and Cracker Jack, because playwright Richard Greenberg is going to teach us a lesson with his chronicle of baseball, the award-winning opus, Take Me Out. Greenberg’s ode to baseball won three Tony awards in 2003, including Best Play, Best Featured Actor (Denis O’Hare) and Best Director (Joe Mantello, who just won a Tony for his work in Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim musical). Summer is in full swing, and the Caldwell Theatre Company couldn’t have picked a better coup than this Florida premiere.
The story focuses on a fictitious baseball team called the Empires, who are on the verge of having a great season. Kippy Sunderstrom (played skillfully by Michael Shelton) narrates in witty fashion about his friend, franchise player Darren Lemming (a cocky Sebastian LaCause). The biracial all-star Lemming announces publicly that he’s gay - turning the baseball world into a frenzy, much to the chagrin of his teammates.
At this point, Lemming is looked at differently, if looked at all. Teammates alienate him and shy away from contact, especially during showers. Kippy is the only colleague who shows Lemming any support. Not that Lemming thinks he needs it - he is so sure of himself, that he sees homosexuality as a non-issue. Lemming suits himself as a guy who just wants to play baseball.
This all takes a turn for the worse when a rookie pitcher comes up from the minors. Shane Mungitt (Michael Polok) is a young Southern man who speaks little and throws a mean fastball. When becoming hero for the day, he throws an even meaner curve; Mungitt reveals his true colors, spewing out racial and homophobic slurs and turning the baseball community on its ear. And this is just act one.
Greenberg has constructed a good play from start to finish. Take Me Out runs the gamut with issues dealing with rank, class, race and sexuality. Mungitt is somewhat remorseful and makes a statement of apology, just wanting to get back in the game. His impending return doesn’t sit well with Lemming, so a confrontation ensues. This leads to a stream of events while showing Lemming and Mungitt's parallel universes. What makes Take Me Out so brilliant is the fatal connection (an opposing player eventually caught in the crossfire) that is revealed after both universes collide with each other.
Michael Hall’s direction shows us a stark reality within the walls of a locker room; running showers, naked men, and coarse language abound in this play. Hall makes it look realistic by having the players strip to nothing, revealing the darker side of baseball. Take Me Out is also the consummate ensemble play. Most dramas have their lighter points, and the cast makes sure that they hit their marks. Commentary is told from different perspectives including foreign players, overwrought fans, and especially Lemming’s own business manager.
Sebastian LaCause has the perfect role portraying Darren Lemming. LaCause breathes attitude and swagger into Lemming. And, although Lemming unravels his façade, LaCause is right there showing his scars. Michael Shelton’s narration skills are on point as he portrays Kippy as a “do the right thing” type of friend. Kippy even tries to take Mungitt under his wing, but can’t seem to reach the poor slob. We see Shelton using those different tactics to cajole Mungitt, never holding his head in defeat until we see Kippy's own deceptions.
As Shane Mungitt, Michael Polak has the Appalachian dialect down to an art! His performance never shows Mungitt as a cardboard villain, but as a simple doofus who just wants to play the game. Unfortunately, one fatal incident changes Mungitt’s outlook, so Polak lays all his cards on the table and rips into the world for his plight.
The play, though, belongs to Mason Marzac. Marzac is Darren Lemming’s acolyte of a business manager. Gary Cowling’s performance is hilarious. Through his tight, wound up mannerisms, Cowling shows off his comedic talent as Lemming’s confidant, effervescently gay mother figure, and #1 fan.
Once again, Caldwell’s resident design staff never misses a pitch in complementing the material of the moment. Tim Bennett bats a thousand with his wide locker room complete with a batter’s box. Thomas Salzman’s lights are so radiant, they blend in the scene nicely. Sound maven Steve Shapiro gives the feel of a baseball game with the roar of the crowd and the precise reverberation of the ball caught in the mitt. Patricia Burdett and Susan Stowell provide the generic pinstripe uniforms, so the action will stay on the field (er ... stage), and not on the clothes.
We got to preview Richard Greenberg’s genius during the spring, thanks to The Madman Experiment’s production of Three Days of Rain. Take Me Out is a testament of Greenberg’s clever writing and brilliant structure of drama. The Tony awards that it received were well deserved and the Caldwell Theatre hits another home run with their own stellar production. Please be advised, Take Me Out contains coarse language, sexual situations, and graphic nudity. It plays until July 18th at 7875 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton. For more information, please call the box office at (561) 241-7432 or www.Caldwelltheatre.com.
CALDWELL THEATRE COMPANY - Take Me Out
Cast: Michael Shelton*, Sebastian LaCause*, Michael Polak*
Production Stage Manager: James Danford
Scenic Design: Tim Bennett
Directed by Michael Hall *-denotes Actors' Equity Association
-- Kevin Johnson