FPCTÂ's "Take Me Out" is a Grand Slam
SHOW INFORMATION: Through October 19. Fri - Sat at 8PM, Sun at 2PM. Tickets $17.00. Call 410.276.7837 or go to www.fpct.org for information and ticket reservations.
◊◊◊◊◊ out of five. 2 hours, 45 minutes, including 2 intermissions. PARENTAL ADVISORY: Take Me Out contains adult language, themes and full frontal male nudity. Not recommended for children.
Given the hype, exacerbated by the article in The Baltimore Sun a few weeks ago, you'd think that Take Me Out should have been called Naked Boys Swinging. That article made it sound like the play, which opened last night at Fells Point Corner Theatre, was nothing but buff ball players on parade. Of course, the article missed the boat completely. And, of course, I'm not here to editorialize about a rival publication, but I will set the record straight on behalf of the cast and production team who probably tried valiantly to steer the reporter in the right direction, as well as set it straight for those of you who might automatically dismiss the show as excessive smut. It is as far from that as the Orioles are from first place.
In the interest of getting facts in line, yes, there is quite a bit of nudity in the play. Yes, it is entirely appropriate - the drama unfolds in a baseball locker room, just off the showers after all. But, no, it is never gratuitous. Heck, aside from being the subject of a valid point about carefree behaviors being modified, which lasts all of two minutes; it is never even an issue. It is simply realistic. FPCT is certainly justified in issuing the parental advisory you read above - though I'd say it was more so for the themes of the play than the skin you see.
So, what is Take Me Out really about? A complicated question and answer, I'm afraid. The "plot" concerns a perennially successful MLB team, The Empires, and its superstar player, Darren Lemming. Mr. Lemming is an all-American success story. He's bi-racial, from a successful family, with an inordinate amount of talent, a hero and heartthrob to all, and who makes the startling announcement that he is gay. That declaration sets in motion a series of events that changes the lives of everyone on the team forever. But the play is really "about" so much more, far beyond what you probably expect. Homosexuality is but one theme, and not even the most important theme, of this play. In hindsight, the gay angle seems almost a subplot. It is about preconceived notions about sports and sportsmen in America, about the truest meaning of friendship (most notably about male friendship), about what we value as a society, and how, surprisingly about how heroes aren't always completely good and villains aren't always completely bad. It is about all of that and more, which I will leave for you to chew on after you see this absolutely stunning production.
To say that this play scores on every level would some how seem to give each aspect short shrift, much in the same way some theatre snobs automatically give short shrift to community theatre without ever sampling it. Yes, this a "community theatre" production, but it has quality that I would say is comparable to any regional theatre in our area. And this is from top down. Aside from some awkward gaps caused by lighting mishaps and scene changes made by actors who are about to speak, this production runs like a well-oiled machine, which is due in large part, I am sure, by the firm hand of director Terry J. Long, who treats each small scene - there are several in each act - like each is a complete play. This is crucial in an episodic script, and serves to not only up the quality of each dramatic and comic moment, but it also helps create a fluidity that a lesser director would have flubbed to disastrous result. You see, playwright Richard Greenberg has structured the play as a flashback, with several flashbacks within it. To heighten dramatic tension, the play is told out of order. Fortunately, because Mr. Long and company have a firm grasp on the play, this is never an issue and the whole piece is incredibly easy to follow.
Mr. Long and Brian A. Erickson designed the simple yet effective set, such that we move from place to place around the stadium and other locales easily. The set pieces, open athletic lockers move simply to configure not only the locker room, but the coach's office, a local bar and other places, while the floor, painted like a field of dreams is the entire baseball field by virtue of a simple lighting change (designed by William Marks). Delroy Cornick's sound design adds greatly to the ambiance of the work and helps create aurally what cannot be done visually when we see the team actually play. Finally, Larry Malkus' fight direction for one key scene is so remarkably realistic, the audience, myself included, gasped several times.
One of the interesting aspects of the play is the frequent mention of the numerology of baseball - so many things in threes and multiples of three, the finite quality of the number of bases, balls and strikes, even the three kids most players seem to have. So it is fitting that this is a three act play with nine players in it. And, like a real club, they are a great team and great individually. The supporting cast is a great bunch of characters, played well by each actor. Chuck DeLong as the coach of the team exudes that quiet giant quality of such a man. You can tell he is conflicted between his feelings about the personal matters of his team and his job to get wins out of them at any cost. Robbie Heacock, as the catcher, puts an interesting spin on the dimwit stereotype assigned to many a jock, as he sputters his way through a series of thoughts he can't articulate. Joe Dunn, as a utility player, does well with a character that makes mountains out of molehills to cover up his own shortcomings and prejudices. Have a character who breathes righteous indignation? Joe Dunn is your go-to actor. Gary Deleon, as the Japanese wunderkind, is quite funny as he manages to create a complete portrayal while rarely speaking a word of English. Finally, there is Aaron Androuh, who plays the best friend of Darren and is on a rival team. Mr. Androuh successfully navigates a deceptively complex role as the man who exudes manliness and moral standards to the public, but turns out to much less a friend than that public persona might indicate. It would have been very easy to overdo each of these characters or rely solely on the stereotypes each represents, but none of these actors do that, choosing wisely to give us what we expect to hook us, then reeling us in with originality.
There are four main characters, and each of the four actors portraying these men are, unequivocally, giving amazing performances that you will remember for some time to come. Ed Zarkowski, as Mason "Mars" Marzac, Darren's business manager, makes that character's transformation from dull single-minded accountant/queeny stereotype to a well-rounded, thoughtful man, easy to follow and sublimely satisfying. Often, Mr. Zarkowski is called upon to provide comic relief, even doing what amounts to a Late Night monologue at one point. He is hilarious and, as you might expect, overtly queer in his delivery. But what makes the comedy of those moments so much more is both the layer of honesty and humanity that he gives each joke, and the heartbreaking sincerity of the character's more introspective moments. The result is a refreshing take on an obvious archetype
Tony Viglione, as team smart guy and philosopher, does the lion's share of the narrating, and really comes into play in the third act as his character acts as team go-between/diplomat. At first glance, the character may seem pretty one dimensional. He is smart, so people naturally go to him for advice, and he is a leader on the field as well. But in Mr. Viglione's capable hands, his take on Kippy Sunderstrom is multi-dimensional and complex, revealing a man who is as unsure as anyone else, and who, like everyone else, is capable of making a mistake - even one big enough to destroy a friendship in the name of smoothing things over. Watching this actor's face, the hallmark of any really good actor, tells you more than any line he says.
Sean Mullin, as relief pitcher and uber-bigot Shane Mungitt, not unlike the other actors in the play, gives us exactly what we'd expect from a backwoods ignoramus with one skill (a wicked pitch). His slack-jawed expression and his infuriating twang only serve to make the nastiness which seems to fall out of his mouth all the more offensive. He makes John Rocker look like a minister. But, and this is a gigantic but, Mr. Mullin also finds the element of this character that makes one feel a certain amount of pity toward the guy. He isn't just rude and offensive; he is truly ignorant in the dictionary sense of the word. He says words like "faggot" simply as a label to identify a person, much as the rest of us would say "gay man" when referring to a homosexual. This actor makes you truly believe that he honestly does not understand the meaning of the word in society. While that doesn't excuse his behavior it certainly makes it just a bit harder to completely hate or dismiss this pitiable soul. And that is no small accomplishment.
Finally, in the central role of Darren Lemming, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh gives a superb, professional quality performance, one of great nuance and emotion. This man must be simply exhausted by the end of this performance. He exudes a deep-seeded confidence that comes perilously close to actual arrogance. Only when Darren feels it is expected, though, does this actor allow himself to be completely arrogant. That difference between confidence and arrogance is a fine line, and knowing it speaks volumes for the quality of his performance. Lemming is a complicated man, not because of his revelation, but because of a multitude of things. In short, he is a complicated man like all other men, just more in public - an important theme of the play, and one which Mr. Ebrahimzadeh has taken to heart as he shapes his character. There are a few times when he has the stage alone or separated from action elsewhere, and in those moments the actor really shines for what he does without even speaking is truly wonderful acting. His is a performance likely to be talked about for months to come, and rightly so.
The entire play, with its dramatic highs and lows and its often comedic moments, is compelling. But nothing will really prepare you for the astonishments of act three, which left this reviewer and much of the opening night audience open-mouthed and holding its breath. That act gives each of the four main actors an opportunity for tour de force performing, and none of the four disappoint.
Rumor has it that Take Me Out is selling well. Do yourself a favor as the month changes to yet another October with Baltimore out of the hunt. Get to Fells Point Corner Theatre while there are still tickets available. You'll leave feeling like you attended the World Series.
PHOTOS by Ken Stanek. TOP to BOTTOM: Sean Mullin as Shane Mungitt; Gary Deleon, Chuck DeLong, Joe Dunn and Robbie Heacock; Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Darren Lemming and Aaron Androh as Davey Battle; Edward Zarkowski as Mason Marzac; Tony Viglione as Kippy Sunderstrom; and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Darren Lemming.