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Pitchers and Catchers: Chalk gender lines.

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Last summer, when former Mets manager Bobby Valentine declared in Details that major league baseball is "probably ready for an openly gay player," sports writers, gossip columnists, fans and baseball players everywhere toaok to the airwaves and the internet, terribly titillated at the mere suggestion that baseball was mature enough to handle a gay man within its ranks. And who can blame them? It’s the stuff that New York Post headline writers love.

But Valentine’s comments came a year after Out editor Brendan Lemon revealed in his magazine that he was having an affair with a baseball player from an East Coast team. Lemon never dropped any other hints, and his lover never came out.

What does all this mean? That Valentine probably jumped the gun. More importantly, it means that playwright Richard Greenberg–who brought Take Me Out to the Public Theater for a six-month, sold-out run to great critical acclaim–has his hand on the pulse of America’s ongoing cultural skittishness regarding gay men. That is, whether it’s gays fighting in the military or hitting homeruns in the ballpark–the issue that makes some guys uncomfortable is sex.

Set almost entirely in the fictional New York Empires’ locker room, Take Me Out follows the coming-out process of Darren Lemming–a biracial superstar in the mold of Derek Jeter–and the impact it has on the rest of the team. Lemming’s personality is a mix of the brashness, arrogance, good humor and semi-humility that we see so often in deified athletes. Daniel Sunjata–a mix of Irish, black and German descent–is superb as Lemming, exemplifying the baseball star’s carefree attitude, charisma and persistent need not to be pitied.

Early on, Lemming’s "god-like" talent and confidence is juxtaposed against Shane Mungitt (Frederick Weller), the team’s rookie redneck pitcher who was orphaned as a teenager. Mungitt, an obsessive-compulsive who showers two or three times before each game, voices his concern about having to "take a shower with a faggot." A loner by nature who can’t easily communicate how he’s feeling, Mungitt soon finds himself isolated by his teammates and temporarily suspended from baseball after uttering a bunch of racial and ethnic slurs.

Lemming’s business manager, the flamboyant, neurotic, non-baseball fan Mason Marzac–nicknamed "Marz" early on by Lemming–steals several scenes in the play. His nervousness and his flirtation with Lemming is cute, and funny. Denis O’Hare turns in an enthusiastic performance as Marzac, who feels marginalized by the gay community. Marzac does a 360 in the play, coming not only to love baseball–he spouts statistics and gets giddy when he’s on the diamond–but even characterizing baseball as "the perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society" because "everyone is given a chance." In one conversation, he says baseball is "unrelentingly meaningful" and tells Lemming, "Life is so tiny. It’s so daily. This–you–take me out of it." In truth, though, Marzac admits his metaphor oversimplifies things. Unlike the rising-tide-lifts-all-ships theory of democracy, Marzac notes that "baseball says ‘someone will lose.’"

Some things have changed since Take Me Out’s run at the Public Theater. Dialogue has been tweaked, Mungitt’s background seems more fleshed-out, and the play itself–once nearly three hours long–has been cut to two acts, losing more than 30 minutes of playing time. Scott Pask’s set, which includes a working shower where some pivotal moments take place, is brilliantly designed. I only worry how the actors will fare this summer when the air conditioning at the Walter Kerr is on during the nude scenes. Nudity is not a gimmick or a come-on for the audience in Take Me Out, as it was in The Full Monty or Puppetry of the Penis. That’s not to say that the prospect of seeing a group of cute, naked guys won’t entice some theatergoers who otherwise don’t follow baseball–but it actually serves a larger purpose. It gets to the very core of why Lemming’s coming out is such a big deal, and why the prospect of an openly gay baseball superstar in real life still freaks straight ballplayers out. It’s the misconception that gay men are sexual predators; when in reality the issue is their straight teammates’ comfort with their own sexuality.

The main players in Take Me Out are, in a certain way, caricatures of archetypes. The roles, well-acted and perfectly executed, are exaggerated for dramatic necessity and to make a point. Mungitt is not just an orphaned redneck whose father killed his mother, but he’s illiterate to the point that he can’t even write a letter of apology after his suspension. He’s also not quite sure what state he’s from, and he once shot up every glass milk bottle within 10 miles of his house. Mungitt is John Rocker multiplied by ten. Lemming’s good friend Davey Battle, involved in the play’s melodramatic conclusion (which I won’t reveal for those who haven’t seen it), is a pious, self-righteous man who excoriates Lemming, demanding that he "shut up about [his] demons."

Kippy Sunderstrom (Neal Huff) has some of the more bizarre lines of the show. As the play’s narrator, maybe that’s his fate. Sunderstrom tries to act as the connection between scenes, while addressing the audience about relevant issues. After Lemming’s announcement, Sunderstrom–who worships the ground Lemming walks on–says, "Now you’re more human," but laments that the ballplayers "have lost [their] paradise."

Audiences should see Take Me Out because the play, despite its flaws, is entertaining and at times moving and comical. It touches on issues of race, class and sports stars as superheroes. It’s about one player’s coming out, but is also about that player’s flawed personality. Lemming and Mungitt can be seen as the two faces of contemporary America–one that’s self-assured, wealthy, powerful and at the top of its game, and another that’s alone, marginalized, uneducated and pathetic. It was, to quote the show’s star, "a fuck of a season."

Take Me Out at Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.), 212-239-6200


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