Gay men have always had a curious relationship with sports. You'd be hard-pressed to find a gay man who didn't spend the majority of adolescence coming up with creative excuses to get out of P.E. class. Our half-hearted attempts to participate in team sports -- whether prodded by well-meaning parents or forced by overzealous coaches -- were usually an exercise in futility. With few exceptions, most us gay boys were too fat, too skinny or just too damn clumsy to "make the team." The only thing we dreaded more than hitting the playing field (or rather, sitting on the sidelines) was heading back to the locker room. And yet, as young homos -- and even more so as adult gay men -- we can't help but be fascinated and more than a little titillated by the goings-on in that damp, smelly, rambunctious chamber of male hormonal angst.
So it's not surprising that Take Me Out a play set primarily in the locker room of a fictional professional baseball team, has drawn huge audiences of gay men since it premiered in New York in 2003. (Rumor has it that when the show transferred from the intimate Public Theatre to bigger digs on Broadway, some audience members showed up with binoculars.) San Francisco's New Conservatory Theater's engaging new production of Richard Greenberg's 2003 Tony Award-winning play has likewise been playing to packed houses since it opened earlier this month. While it can't be ignored that a good many of these ticket-buyers are there simply for the visceral pleasure of a luscious parade of male nudity (there were audible gasps when the lights came up on the now-infamous shower scene), Take Me Out also proves to be an enjoyable and occasionally powerful drama that effectively tackles the still taboo subject of gay male sexuality in American professional sports.
At the center of the play is Darren Lemming, the New York Empires' star center fielder whose almost casual emergence from the closet is the lynchpin of the play. In the hands of a less talented playwright, the character could easily be a cardboard-cutout: a chiseled, loveable, idealized hero for every sissy (or African-American) who ever fantasized of playing in the major leagues. Instead, Greenberg dares to make this all too reluctant hero immensely un-loveable. Brian J. Patterson's disarming performance in this challenging role meticulously chips away at the self-absorbed, pompous "jock-ness" on the surface, revealing a complex tapestry of conflicted emotions and knee-jerk reactions that keep his character compelling throughout the production.
Other standout performances include an immensely likeable Matt Socha as Kippy Sunderstrom (a character upon which Greenberg heavily relies as both protagonist and narrator); Jeffrey Cohlman's gripping turn as Shane Mungitt, a dim-witted redneck with vacant eyes and frighteningly expressionless delivery; and Myers Clark as Davey Battle, Lemming's seemingly stoic best friend and rival, whose surprising revelations figuratively take the play into extra innings.
But the real star of Take Me Out -- and the character who perhaps might best qualify as a hero -- is Patrick Michael Dukeman as Mason Marzac, a mousy accountant who, upon appointment as Lemming's financial manager, transforms from mild-mannered number cruncher to wildly hysterical baseball fanatic. Dukeman's skillfully crafted performance occasionally borders on campy, but ultimately hits it out of the ballpark (sorry, had to go there). His show-stopping monologue, analyzing the beauty, irony and grand poetic elegance of the "home run trot" is worth the price of a ticket.
Take Me Out isn't without the occasional foul ball. Despite energetic performances by the entire cast, Greenberg just doesn't have time to fully flesh out a few of the characters, particularly the Latin and Asian teammates, who unfortunately have few opportunities to transcend racial and hetero-jock stereotypes.
John Kelly's lighting, Bruce Walters' sets and Brian Morse's sound design effectively capture the testosterone-fueled claustrophobia of the locker room (I was instantly transported back to junior high gym days when the unmistakable aroma of "Right Guard" deodorant permeated the air), as well as the immensity, awe and wonder of a professional ballpark.
Ironically, the day after I attended this performance of Take Me Out, I landed fourth-row seats for the Giants/A's game, where I sat only a few feet from the Giants dugout. As the players filed in and out, hugging and patting each other on the rears, I couldn't help but wonder when the day will finally come when a gay man will finally come out of the closet while playing sports at the national level, and what the ramifications will be for his teammates, sports fans and our country when he does. Given the cultural changes that have transformed the GLBT landscape over the last decade (particularly here in our liberal little burg), Take Me Out gives one hope that, perhaps, it's a day that might not be that far away.
Take Me Out has been extended through July 15. For more information go to http://www.nctcsf.org/.