Bats and Balls
Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, now in its Florida premiere at the Caldwell Theatre, is nothing if not ambitious. Its subjects are wide-ranging -- among them, major-league baseball, gay identity, prejudice, and tolerance -- and so are its genres. The play wants to be both a pressure-cooker drama and a gay comedy. That it is only partially successful didn't prevent it from garnering a Tony for best new play as well as a string of other major awards during its Broadway run last season. Certainly its story line is timely. The world champion Empires, a team bearing more than a little resemblance to the New York Yankees, are driving for a third consecutive championship, but their season is in jeopardy when team members learn that their star player, Darren Lemming, is gay. Darren's pal Kippy Sunderstrom is proud that Darren has the courage to reveal his true identity, but most of the other players are hostile, and the team tanks. Darren himself is serene -- he has faced prejudice before as a biracial man. He is who he is, and that's the end of it.
Darren may be out of the closet, but he's not out of the clubhouse; the team keeps the conflict under wraps until a loopy new relief pitcher named Shane Mungitt goes on a televised tear against gays, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians (the team has a Japanese pitcher). As a result, Darren not only loses the friendship of black, conservative Davey Battle, a star slugger on a rival team, but he's considered a victim of prejudice, a position he hates. Meanwhile, though, Darren begins an oddball friendship with his new accountant, Mason Marzac, a buttoned-down guy who's as repressed and tentative about his homosexuality as Darren is open and assured about his. Mason, whom Darren nicknames Mars, is thrilled to be working with Darren and soon falls for baseball itself, waxing rhapsodic about its virtues and allure. All along, a showdown is building; Shane, who has been suspended from the team for his remarks, is set to return as the World Series nears.
The play is told in a jumpy, nonlinear format, linked by narration from Kippy. Largely set in the Empires' locker room and on the field, the play calls for full frontal male nudity and mimed baseball action, but physicality is not the real focus here. Talk is. The first act is devoted to a dialogue-heavy setup of the characters and how they deal with Darren's sexual identity -- a revelation that has occurred before the play begins. Take Me Out may be about baseball, but it's structured like a basketball game -- it heats up only in the last 24 minutes, as a series of dramatic confrontations leads to and away from a surprising death that may or may not have been accidental.
The Caldwell production is well-acted and visually striking. Tim Bennett delivers an impressive set -- a forest-green structure with a looming scoreboard and rolling platforms to create locations. Thomas Salzman's painterly lighting is particularly effective, pools of light with impressionistic streaks of color. The acting ensemble is solid and solidly built -- the shower scenes resemble classic sculpture. As Darren, Sebastian LaCause anchors the production. With a dynamic presence and a powerful body, he's thoroughly plausible as a baseball demigod. Other standouts are Michael Shelton as Kippy the avuncular peacemaker and Michael Polak as Shane, the prejudiced pitcher with more than one screw loose. Polak is memorable in the second act when Shane experiences a breakdown -- you can see the man falling apart beat by beat. Best of all is Gary Cowling as the effete, geeky Mason, a thoroughly charming comedic turn that's a welcome antidote to the dramatic doings. Mason has most of the play's best lines (the character appears to be a wish fulfillment stand-in for the author), and Cowling's timing is superb.
It's the blend of light comedy and disturbing drama that gives Take Me Out its distinct personality (the title has multiple meanings), and helps to explain its critical acclaim. But while the play is superior, it is not stellar. Had Greenberg made the gay comedy the main story instead of the subplot, Take Me Out would have more appeal. As it is, though, the play wants to be a serious drama about homophobia and racism in a male work community, with a doom-filled march toward tragedy. While this has worked before (for instance in David Rabe's 1970s Vietnam military drama Streamers), it doesn't quite succeed here. Without giving away more of the plot, let it be said that the underlying logic of Greenberg's tale is weak -- things happen, but not necessarily causally, and what all of this is supposed to mean remains murky.
The production also has its faults. For a story so centered on locker-room reality, this one doesn't have much. The details, the rituals of sports life, are missing -- the taping of injuries, the fiddling with gloves and equipment. These players look the same before and after each game -- no one gets dirty or injured -- and the mimed pitching, hitting, and catching look much less than major-league. Most scenes consist of characters standing in isolated spotlights, and certain critical moments, notably the death scene, are staged so cursorily that they lack much impact. With the exception of Mason, the characterizations are decidedly flat. The gay and gay-friendly characters are all erudite in exactly the same way, using the same vocabulary, while the straight teammates are caricatures -- stupid Southerners, inscrutable Japanese, macho Hispanics. But perhaps Take Me Out, like an All-Star slugger, comes up to bat with too many expectations. This show doesn't score a grand slam, but it does knock out a solid double.
Richard Feynman was a physicist who won a Nobel Prize in 1965, helped develop the atomic bomb, and was a key member of a panel that investigated the Challenger explosion in 1986. He was also a loon. Oozing eccentricity as often as possible, Feynman -- aside from being considered the greatest mind since Einstein -- was also an avid bongo player, an artist (with a fetish for nude models), and an actor in local theater.
As brilliantly portrayed by Carbonell Award-winning David Kwiat in QED, Feynman's life and work is given a renaissance performance that would surely have made him proud (he died in 1988). In what is essentially a one-man play, Kwiat exudes a spirit and poignancy that demonstrates complete control of the ever-shifting dialogue and mood, captivating us to the point where he can make us laugh or mourn seemingly at will.
Although Autumn Horne makes a brief appearance as his student, most of the time Kwiat is alone on the intimate set at the GableStage. The events of the play, which take place at Feynman's office at Cal Tech on a Saturday afternoon in June 1986, include a number of phone calls from doctors (he has cancer), his wife, the Challenger committee, and visiting Russian friends. Kwiat also speaks directly to the audience on a number of occasions, recounting Feynman's rich and storied life of accolades, questions, and loss.
There are few scholarly topics that elicit more blank stares than physics, let alone quantum electrodynamics, a field-within-a-field that describes how atoms produce radiation and that gives the play its name. But with Kwiat embodying Feynman's zest for life, it's not hard to stare in amusement and appreciation.
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