While the Gallery Players's theater may be located a few subway stops deep into Brooklyn, their production of Richard Greenberg's Tony Award-winning play Take Me Out seems not too far away from Broadway. The main reason for the play's success is simple: each member of the 11-man cast gives a truly exceptional performance. It's difficult to single out any one individual when each actor performs at such a high level of quality. Noshir Dalal is perfectly cast to type as the gay golden boy Darren Lemming, star of the New York Empires baseball franchise. Ron Brice is more than solid as Darren's mentor and rival, Davey Battle. Even Nobuo Inubushi's understated acting as Japanese import player Takeshi Kawabata is compelling, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that he spends most of the play completely silent.
But the night belongs to Jonathan C. Kaplan, who plays the self-acknowledged "smartest man in baseball," Kippy Sunderstrom. Kaplan takes the weight of the production onto his shoulders and swaggers around the stage as if the burden were no heavier than his jersey.
Not much actually happens during the play's first half, which serves merely to introduce all the characters. The task of narration falls to Kaplan's Sunderstrom, and he enthusiastically delves into the details of Darren Lemming's past, his coming out of the closet during a nationally televised press conference, and the arrival of the unfortunate savior of the season, the racist and intolerant relief pitcher Shane Mungitt. Even with the lack of action, Kaplan's energy—along with some well-timed jokes—keeps the production pushing forward, despite the script's self-indulgent need to begin with the story of Adam and Eve.
The play really gets started near the end of the first act, when Mungitt publicly admits to feeling uncomfortable in the locker room with his gay teammate. When the second act begins, Mungitt has been suspended, and the Empires have struggled without him. A public apology lands him back in the clubhouse, but although his talent puts the Empires back on top of their division, his presence creates tension in the locker room, a tension that ultimately leads to outrage and tragedy.
As Mungitt, Peter Hawk plays the white-trash right-hander with an understated presence that ensures he stands out on a stage that's full of full-of-themselves alpha males. His gruff voice and casual delivery try to steal every scene, seemingly without Hawk's permission.
Cully Long's set design is simple: the floor of the stage is painted in tan and green with a couple of thick, white stripes, as if it were an anonymous corner of a baseball field. Four lockers and stools sit on each side of the stage for most of the production. A platform upstage triples (pun intended) as the locker room's shower as well as a press podium and pitching mound. What serves to change the scenery are subtle lighting changes, designed by Travis Walker. And natural-sounding sound effects, such as running water, clicking shutters, and play-by-plays, help create a believable atmosphere regardless of how many props are present or lacking in any given scene.
The only noticeable weakness in the Gallery Players's production is the Pulitzer-nominated script itself. Greenberg's characters are little more than clichés: the dumb rookie Jason seemed a near carbon copy of Bull Durham's Nuke LaLoosh; the Hispanic players Martinez and Rodriguez serve no purpose other than to curse in Spanish; the wise, old Skipper is reminiscent of, well, every manager in every baseball movie ever made; and the flamboyant sports agent is so "gay" that he skips when happy and eats ice cream when depressed. What elevates the characters beyond stereotypes and makes the audience members care (and they care a lot) is the cast members' inspired performances. Rodriguez and Martinez's jokes about Kawabata's mother could easily fall flat but instead provoke belly laughs.
The stereotypes also make the play's moral messages come off a bit trite. In Greenberg's world, only ignorant people are racist and only religious people are intolerant hypocrites, but true friendships last forever. The script leaves a few conflicts somewhat unresolved in its attempt to be taken seriously as a social commentary, but it still can't manage to create more complexity and believability than a Julia Roberts story about a hooker with a heart of gold.
But never mind the playwright's attempts to dress up his lighthearted frolic as an intellectual tragedy. Take Me Out is two hours of fun, witty comedy. The clever direction, impeccable production values, and first-rate acting by the Gallery Players make this show a genuine must-see.