From the evidence at hand, it's safe to say that playwright Richard Greenberg loves baseball. Make that adores baseball.
His clubhouse comedy Take Me Out ï¿½ winner of the 2003 Best New Play Tony ï¿½ takes stage as the labor of a steadfast lover, even as it stakes out positions on some moral issues and makes a case for all sorts of tolerance. More affection shines through the happy-hearted but troubled production that's now showing weekends through March 9 in New Stage Collective's 100-seat loft theater on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.
Brian Isaac Phillips, artistic director of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC), stages the piece. He gives it sharp focus. He gives it vigor. And he gives it the "heart" that the baseball musical Damn Yankees swears "you gotta have" if you wanna win.
In the process Phillips guides a triple play of wholly admirable performances, some other strong ones and, inexplicably, one sore thumb of an exhibition that threatens to destabilize everything else
The audience is invited into that holiest of baseball holies, the locker room. The New York Empires have been winning handily, heading for another pennant. Then, without warning, golden boy infielder Darren Lemming (Brandon Burton) tells the press that he's gay.
Morale plunges. Friendships are tested. Players who never gave a thought to being together naked in the showers worry about dropping the soap. Pitching goes to hell. A redneck reliever comes up from Triple A ball and blows team spirit apart with his casual bigotry. A sudden, complicated and not wholly believable death occurs.
Meantime, Lemming meets his new money manager and a fledgling friendship starts up as another baseball fanatic is born.
Is it a great play? Nope. Entertaining? Yes, and hearty as hell, particularly with narrator Kippy (Justin McCombs) articulating, even embodying, the playwright's passion.
McCombs, who has been shining brightly all season at CSC, succeeds again, giving Kippy the stature of a true and likeable winner. As Shane, Alex Brooks (also from the CSC company) accomplishes the near impossible, revealing the stunted, pleading innards of the bedeviled bigot.
CCM student Burton starts slowly but undergirds Lemming's brashness with some self-doubt that only proves his strength. Brook Stetler has a couple of excellently comic, Yogi Berra-esque moments.
However, as the gay accountant, Charles William Clark comes close to wrecking every scene he's in with an over-the-top, hey-look-at-me swishiness that's at odds with both the character and the play. The mystery is why Phillips lets him get away with it.
Like that 800-pound gorilla in the dining room, there's something about Take Me Out that requires discussion: Does its extended nudity have dramatic validity or is it sensationalism designed to start a buzz and sell tickets? If the script did not call for eight actors to take showers on stage, would it have been produced in the first place? Maybe, maybe not.
Minus the shock value of naked bodies would New Stage's artistic director, Alan Patrick Kenny, have included it in the season? The script lacks the sort of asperity and experimental audacity that have hallmarked other New Stage Collective choices.
Greenberg's Take Me Out is a nicely crafted play but nowhere near as striking a piece as his elliptical Three Days of Rain, which dazzled Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati audiences a few seasons back.
It revels in his love of all things baseball. It takes positions on social issues and makes a few valid points. But, hell, so does Damn Yankees.
TAKE ME OUT continues at New Stage Collective in Over-the-Rhine through March 9. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.