Knocking one out of the park - 'Take Me Out' brings everybody home

For decades, playwrights have been unable to score with a baseball play. Until now. Although we never see the actual game, "Take Me Out" definitely hits a home run. Currently playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Richard Greenberg's 2003 Tony-winning comic drama is surely one of the best theater productions to hit Seattle in the past few years. The actors are fabulous, the directing sensational and the play thought-provoking, witty and ultimately poignant.

This is the way you want theater to be. Why you continue to sit through those tedious, pseudo-pretentious theatricals. So that one night, you might be astonished and delighted.

Greenberg's engaging work pays homage to America 's favorite pastime, first celebrating baseball as a myth, then adding a socio-political twist. His intelligent script has you laughing one moment and outraged another.

Brilliantly steered by seasoned Broadway director Joe Mantello, who also snagged a Tony for his efforts, the play takes place in the lockerroom of the mythical New York Empires, complete with real working showers and wisecracking dugout humor. Mantello keeps the pace moving with a bases-loaded panache as the talented 11-member, all-male cast delivers this behind-the-scenes baseball tale of morality and metaphor with believable conviction. And it all begins with Darren Lemming, the Empires' charismatic, black all-star outfielder.

M.D. Walton gives a powerful performance as Darren, the arrogant, self-confident superstar of mixed race who calls a press conference at the peak of his career to announce that he's gay. To him, it's no big deal, but shockwaves ripple through the lockerroom and the major-league community. (Imagine if Alex Rodriguez suddenly came out.) But Darren's declaration unintentionally sets off a cycle of mayhem and violence, wreaking havoc on his team as well as the sport. His teammates feel self-conscious about being naked in the lockerroom with him, especially when redneck relief pitcher Shane Mugitt (Harlon George) arrives from the minors and starts spewing his racist and homophobic remarks to the media, John Rocker style.

Shane hails from Tennessee . Or is it Arkansas ? Some hillbilly state like that. He was only 14 months old when he father killed his mother and shot himself. The wailing tot, undiscovered for three days, became a permanent part of the orphan circuit, and as he grew older, the damaged reject of countless foster homes. The feral, monosyllabic Shane loves baseball but hates 'most everything and everyone else. Inevitably he and Darren tangle, with catastrophic results.

With Matthew Perry looks and a droll style, Doug Wert plays Kippy, the Empires' shortstop and Darren's only real friend on the team. Part messenger and part team conscience, the intellectually inclined shortstop routinely breaks character to set up the stage action for the audience. As he turns back to engage Darren in conversation, Kippy desperately tries to understand what makes his teammate tick.

While some of the team members begrudgingly begin to accept Darren, others are openly suspicious and hostile. You expect it this from the deeply troubled Shane. But not from Davey Battle (Charles Parnell), Darren's closest friend, himself a superstar on a rival team. A deeply religious family man, Davey makes the postgame bash, drinks a beer, utters a few cusswords to maintain his macho sports image, and then rushes home to his wife and children. Parnell, in a vivid portrayal as Dave, reeks of religious bigotry when he passionately denounces his friend's homosexuality.

Not everyone feels that way. Like Tim Robbins' character in "Bull Durham," Jason Chenier (Terrence Riordan), the Empires' catcher, embodies the stereotypical dumb jock - low on brains, high on hunky virility. As the good-natured catcher, Riordan delivers a perfect combination of funny and endearing when he tries to communicate his support of Darren by referring to the "Grecians." Chenier is so earnest, amusing and clueless, you want to fold him to your bosom, pat him on the head and say "Good boy."

But the audience favorite remains T. Scott Cunningham, in a bravura performance as Mason Marzac, the nerdy gay accountant assigned to manage Lemming's finances. During the process, Mason, or "Mars," as Darren dubs him, experiences a rhapsodic epiphany about the joys of baseball - and Darren. Mason's poetic 10-minute speech in Act One all but stops the show as he explains "the game" and how it compares to democracy. And on opening night, Cunningham received a rousing round of applause with his line, "Baseball is better than democracy, or at least than democracy as it's practiced in this country."

Even Mason's movements are heartwarmingly hilarious. He's like a gay Peter Pan. At one point he's so giddy and overjoyed, he executes a half arabesque/half leap into the air - you almost expect him to fly. And it's that way every time he's onstage. Cunningham disarms you, partly because of Greenberg's wonderful script, and partly because he's so damned adorable. You'd send him to speak to Congress on behalf of gay rights if you could.

Throughout his play, Greenberg juxtaposes humor and pathos to make his metaphoric point about masculinity in America. In one scene Kippy playfully interprets the words of pitcher Takeshi Kawabata (Robert Wu). Takeshi doesn't speak English; Kippy doesn't speak Japanese. But that doesn't stop Kippy from translating with great imagination. He even throws in a reference to Japanese cinema.

Likewise, Darren teases Mason, whose awkward, self-confessing candor manages to break through the superstar's reserve. When the accountant advises him to start a charity to bolster his flagging image, Darren suggests an organization for f***ed-up gay kids under 10. Easily duped, Mason quickly expresses concern about the qualification testing, to which Darren retorts, "I'm just goofin' on ya."

Although "Take Me Out" may be perceived as a "gay" play because it has two gay characters and lots of naked men, it's actually a story about friendship, prejudice and entitlement. Most of all, it's about how life resembles a baseball game.

That illusion is sustained by Scott Pask's basic black set, topped by a mini-scoreboard to evoke lockerroom ambience. Janet Kalas' sound design and Kevin Adams' lighting add major-league chutzpah, and Jess Goldstein's costumes do the same, from baseball uniforms to towel couture.

If you're thinking of bringing the whole family, be aware that "Take Me Out" contains strong language - mostly the f-word. And the entire team does the Full Monty in two big shower scenes. But it's not gratuitous nudity, nor is it sensationalized. This lockerroom saga deals with team camaraderie and conflict. Oh, you may admire the character's physiques. That said, these actors are so comfortable with their own bareness, you should be as well. And this time, we're not goofin' on ya.

Freelance writer Starla Smith is a Queen Anne resident. Before moving to Seattle from New York , Smith was a Broadway journalist and Tony voter.[[In-content Ad]]