In the Dugout, Out of the Closet

"I'm sorry, fellas, but I still don't understand the infield-fly rule": A confab from 'Take Me Out'
Rich Ryan

One suspects that actor Lindsay Smiling has consumed his fair share of Sports Center recently. His portrayal of Darren Lemming, a star baseball player who announces his homosexuality midway through the season, captures the icy entitlement of the contemporary athlete. Lemming is biracial, smooth, and handsome (Smiling bears a resemblance to Sammy Sosa, albeit without the hulking chem-lab physique). He also cares about essentially nothing and no one, and looks upon his fellow humans as a lower species entirely.

This regional premiere of Richard Greenberg's 2002 play is a crisp and knowing production with a sharp and witty take on baseball--a game abusively overused as a metaphor but which still sturdily stands in for springtime, boyishness, and the uniquely American species of corrupted innocence. Above all, director Stan Wojewodski's cast puts forth a tone that brushes past the camaraderie and put-me-in-coach tone of lesser sports works while sharply portraying the fractiousness, tedium, and essential hollowness beneath.

Darren's best friend on the team is Kippy Sunderstrom, resident clubhouse intellectual. Usually this tag is applied to the player who was rumored to have once had a wet Stephen King paperback at the bottom of his locker, but Sean Dooley plays him with a good deal of subtlety and an appealingly transparent aw-shucks persona. Behind the scenes, he's the one member of the team who stands by Lemming after his announcement.

The Empires (a transparent stand-in for the Yankees, as Lemming seems a proxy for Derek Jeter) hit the skids shortly after Lemming's announcement, though fortunes are reversed with the arrival of Shane Mungitt, a backwoods primitive whose only skill is the ability to throw unhittable pitches in late innings. Zach Curtis plays him as damaged goods with a thousand-yard stare, when not glancing about with the rancor of a man who suspects everyone is having a laugh at his expense, but lacks the intellectual equipment to be sure.

All of this takes place on a spare set done up in the green and white of the baseball diamond, though Jeff Thomson's design shifts midway through to feature shower heads, a working drain, and the team getting fresh and clean in Full Monty mode at the front of the stage. It's really quite hilarious, because the baseball players (still freaked out by Lemming) scrupulously avoid looking at anything they, uh, shouldn't be looking at, while keeping up a steady stream of nervous patter.

Things are peachy until Mungitt has a John Rocker moment on national TV (he's okay with the niggers, he says, and the spics, and the chink, but the faggot?). Lemming starts talking to his accountant Mason, played by Edward Williams Jr., about retirement. Mason, it turns out, is also gay, and has developed a raging baseball jones since managing Lemming's finances. Williams acts with sometimes-spastic inhibition, and he's called on to spout a good deal of George Will-brand insight into the game (did you know there's no clock in baseball?). His role is crucial, in that his character's unconditional adoration for Lemming results in the icy superstar eventually demonstrating a modicum of interest in another human being.

Nothing in the show is sentimentalized, and the second act sees genuine ugliness (Curtis, Smiling, and Dooley ace a jailhouse scene) followed by tepid and partial redemption. Lemming's bombshell, it turns out, was a bit of a dud. One wonders whether Greenberg intuited that America is ready for a gay sports superstar (is it? One might imagine). Deeper still, he might have guessed that the average fan was numbed by the chemical-enhanced fakery behind the plastic McGwire-Sosa homerfest a few years back, a hypocritical "celebration" that did for sports what the 2000 election did for politics. Take Me Out, indeed.

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