Review: `Take Me Out’

Baseball drama aims for more than just naked truth

three stars Play ball!

It’s a shame that Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out is known as “the naked baseball play.”

Sure, there’s more male nudity than in all the previous Tony Award-winning best plays combined. Sure, the front rows have more than their share of gawkers. But at least there’s an actual play there amid all that flesh.

At its best, “Take Me Out,” now receiving a sturdy, often insightful production from San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center, the play is more than simply a play about a popular major league baseball player who rocks the ultra-macho world of professional sports by coming out of the closet.

The play is often about being part of something larger than our individual selves. There’s a spiritual element (couched in intense, baseball-loving dialogue) that goes beyond labels like “baseball play” or even “gay play.”

Being part of a community — whether it’s a baseball team or a stadium full of cheering or booing fans — consumes much of Take Me Out and its flashes _ not just of skin _ of tremendous intelligence, humor and compassion.

Director Ed Decker’s production succeeds in many ways comparable to the touring Broadway version that played San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre in 2004.

This is a more modest production without all the bells and whistles (or running water for the shower scenes), but its smaller, more intimate nature gives Greenberg’s philosophical dialogue a more comfortable, thought-provoking arena.

The intimacy also underscores the play’s trouble spots — mostly in Act 2 when the emerging plot is hijacked by violence _ and its tendency to make athletes sound like college professors or complete dunderheads. Greenberg also has a tendency to use race as a substitute for character when it comes to the minor players on the team.

The most striking performance comes from Jeffrey Cohlman (above, center) as the bad guy: Shane Mungitt, a racist rookie from the minor leagues brought on board to help the world-champion New York Empires clinch another title.

Mungitt, unlike so many of the other characters, is barely verbal, and there’s something terrifying in the lanky tension of his body and the vacant look in his eyes. Cohlman, with his redneck sideburns and Southern drawl, goes far beyond caricature to create a truly menacing — either through ignorance or intent — player.

As main character Darren Lemming, Brian J. Patterson (seen in the photo at the top of the review) has the requisite good looks, and he manages to give the character some shading beyond his vanity and super-size ego.

Matt Socha as Kippy Sunderstrom, the ball player who serves as our narrator, has warmth and charm.

As for the other guys, well, kudos to them for their ability and willingness to be little more than fleshy set dressing.

There’s probably more nudity than is really necessary here, but this is a play dealing with, among other things, masculinity and vulnerability — the naked truth if you will — so at least there’s some sense under the sensation.

Take Me Out may not be a grand slam, but it’s a good, solid triple that leaves you wondering if baseball — or believing in baseball or believing in something — is really the secret of life.

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