Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Grand slam

The cast of Take Me Out.

I'll admit it: rarely do business and pleasure come together for a gay critic the way they do in Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg's Tony-winner about a major league ballplayer who comes out of the closet (and then heads for the showers). True, the clever script is almost hyper-articulate in its treatment of the issues at hand, and Greenberg crafts several memorable characters over the course of the drama. But the play also boasts scenes of athletic young hunks showering together - of course they're all dramatically necessary - and in my dark little heart of hearts, those probably trumped the well-crafted characters when it came to making the schlepp out to the Foothills Theatre in Worcester, where the show runs until November 16.

Of course, not everybody is like me. Indeed, several of the good Worcester women who crowded the show I attended emitted grunts of dismay whenever one hottie or another appeared au naturel. And when the whole team dropped trou for a gang shower, a lady nearby even cried "Oh, no!" Hmmmm. I really don't know what to make of that. Really, I don't. I mean, are they growing them hotter than this out in Worcester? I don't think so.

But the good news is that even these despisers of the male body beautiful left the show happy, because the cast proved quite talented, and director Jason Southerland (who co-produced the play once before, in Boston) directed with knowing finesse.

Alas, at first the production felt a little too glib (as productions of this play tend to do). Greenberg's tale is quite oblique in its development, and he gives himself two narrators to tell it - and almost everyone in the cast (with one great exception) talks in a way that suggests their SAT scores are as high as their batting averages, that is, in complicated sentences laced with the kind of parallel subordinate clauses you almost never hear anyone deliver in real life. In short, roughly the first half of the play feels like a highly-finished lecture, albeit a wittily self-aware one.

And Southerland's two leads fell at least partly into this trap. As Darren Lemming, the self-sufficient gay superstar who's prone to philosophical musings about his own godlike attributes, Herb Newsome displayed a fine intelligence and a convincing confidence, but perhaps not much of that god-like mystery - nor did he fully conjure the eventual crash to earth of this cocky Icarus. Meanwhile, as his "second-best-friend," Kippy, sexy young Dan Whelton was likewise almost too witty and poised; he never leavened his technically-perfect line readings with the undertones of loss and betrayal that must move beneath this relationship.

Still, these two did draw out dimensions of Richard Greenberg's script that were missing from the earlier Boston production - particularly the author's obsession with the moral responsibility of communication. In Take Me Out, language itself is constantly in play, and Southerland's cast made the most of the many ways these troubled team players do and do not connect with one another.

But it wasn't until the appearance of Kelby T. Akin as homophobic pitcher Shane Mungitt that the production suddenly knocked the play out of the park - although perhaps in a slightly different direction than its author intended. The fresh-faced Akin played Mungitt more as damaged babe than brute, and brought truly tragic feeling to his frustration as the tense situation slipped out of his primitive control. Indeed, I'd say the performance was so much more powerful and raw than those of his co-stars that Akin basically turned the play on its head - or at least pulled its ironic sub-theme front-and-center. Suddenly Take Me Out was no longer about the travails of its callous gay hero, but instead morphed into the tragedy of a crude, but innocent, bigot who was powerless to control his impulses. Mr. Akin, a graduate of Trinity's training program, clearly has big things ahead of him - alas, he's already based in New York, but perhaps Boston casting directors will make it out to Worcester before the Broadway ones do!

To be fair, Mr. Akin was not the only actor in this cast to connect with his material. Paul Melendy made hilarious hay out of the goofy player who wants to assure everybody he's totally cool with his gay teammate (and was particularly fearless in that notorious shower scene), and Anthony Jarrod Goes (above left, with Dan Whelton) was completely convincing as the dim team member who maybe couldn't finish that SAT essay question, but still knows he doesn't like showering with a gay dude. John Kooi deftly sketched in a smoothly double-talking team manager, and in the audience-pleasing role of newbie baseball queen Mason Marzac, George Saulnier III never laid on the adorability too thick, but allowed the poignance of the character to sneak up on the audience. Like much about the production, this proved an unexpected pleasure.

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