- Darren (Michael May) and pal Kippy (Phil Carroll) share a buff moment in Take Me Out.
If Fox Sports ever puts a show together on "The Best Damn Baseball Windups," former Indian Luis Tiant should top the list. His twisting pre-release contortions were a marvel of anatomical misdirection.
A theatrical production can have a similarly arresting "windup" -- one that's full of dazzle and flash, but obscures an ultimate delivery that's weak by comparison. Such is the case with Take Me Out, the baseball-focused play now at Dobama Theatre. Even though it's loaded with attention-getting pieces -- a gay superstar player who outs himself, a brutally bigoted teammate, naked shower-room scenes, and on-the-field horror -- it ultimately makes only tepid observations about homosexuality, masculinity, and baseball.
That said, the Dobama production, directed by Scott Plate, is tight and captivating. The cast's 11 players credibly represent a baseball team, from their racial mix to their physiques, and each lends a unique character tone to this locker-room mosaic.
At the center of the storm is future Hall of Famer Darren Lemming, a multitalented outfielder preternaturally confident in his abilities, as the greatest athletes always are. He also is quite secure in his identity as a gay man, bringing up his sexual orientation in an offstage team meeting with evidently little fanfare.
This in itself doesn't jibe with reality. If a current luminary in any major team sport dropped such a bomb on his teammates, it would flatten the beers in every sports bar coast to coast. Sure, Darren's teammates have some difficulties adjusting, but there is no sense of the cultural shock waves that would crash down after such an announcement.
The playwright does manage to have some fun with the reactions of Darren's teammates. Super-dense catcher Jason (Shaphan David Seiders) claims his respect for those who love differently, since, as he notes with nonsarcastic awe, "the Greeks built the pyramids." Malaprop-prone Toddy (Joe Gennaro) is also given to strange observations; Darren dubs his odd constructions the "poetry of the ignoramus."
Darren's closest friend on the team is shortstop Kippy, the self-titled "most intelligent man in Major League Baseball." The pair talks frequently, batting around heady, clever wordplay like Harvard debaters on a coffee break. Phil Carroll does a credible job as Kippy, although it doesn't require much to be off-handedly witty and smug among ballplayers with brains the size of a Skoal wad.
Darren also shares chat time with a close friend on another team, Davey Battle (David Lemoyne), a man of strong religious beliefs whose demons must be dealt with when Darren's proclivities become known. But the biggest obstacle is redneck closer Shane Mungitt, who, in an interview, cuts loose with a barrage of racist blasts before complaining about having to shower with a faggot. Of course, fate throws Shane and Davey together in the play's climactic moment, a tragic event that seems all too convenient for pulling the storylines together.
While this is going on, Darren' s new business manager, Mason, is trying to deal with his own gayness and his burgeoning knowledge of baseball. Caleb Sekeres is quite funny as Mason, rhapsodizing about the nature of the game and scoring points with his gay neighbors when he talks (loudly) to Darren on the phone. But there's nothing particularly new in Mason's lyrical musings, and when he intones that "baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society," it only confirms that the playwright is not an Indians fan.
As Darren, Michael May is built like Barry Bonds and handles the role with warmth and authority. But there's something transcendent about great athletes, a hypnotic hold on people, and May doesn't quite capture it. He blends into a room a bit too easily.
By contrast, there's no blending with Fred Maurer's Shane, his scowling face and beady eyes twitching in response to invisible pokes and prods. He's a human time bomb, ticking toward explosion.
One drawback of the Dobama production is the poor acoustics in the large black CSU Factory Theatre space. While it looks a bit like a stadium night game, it can't capture the claustrophobic locker-room feel that tends to pressurize players' relationships.
Physically, this is a brazenly frontal play. But Take Me Out misses a chance for an equally candid exploration of male sports iconography and sexual orientation. Still, just like any baseball game, it's often entertaining and occasionally thrilling to watch unfold.