Baseball may no longer be America’s national pastime, but it remains our richest source of metaphors for life. Consider: It’s a team sport that requires each player periodically to stand alone and make a contribution-or, at times, a sacrifice. It’s a sport where failing two-thirds of the time is considered a great success. And it’s a sport where the players have a single goal, the same one as Odysseus: to get home safely.
A half-century ago, baseball took on a different symbolic meaning, becoming one of the first American institutions to integrate racially. But if the preeminent civil rights struggle of our new century involves ending discrimination against gays and lesbians, baseball has fallen well behind the curve. No doubt there are gay ballplayers, but faced with an attitude of intolerance in the macho world of the major leagues, they remain in the clubhouse closet.
What would happen if one of the sport’s superstars made the stunning admission that he was attracted sexually to other men? That’s the premise of Richard Greenberg’s 2003 Broadway hit Take Me Out, which will open the Ensemble Theatre Company’s 2008-09 season this weekend. The comedy-drama examines homophobia in sports and society, but like a ball popped up into the wind, it doesn’t necessarily land where you would expect.
“It’s a fascinating quilt of a play,” said director Jonathan Fox, “with a few different narratives going on.” (As well as clothes coming off, a subject we will get to shortly.) Fox, who enjoys the game but is far from fanatical, says one of his favorite baseball metaphors is the fact the sport “tries to create a sense of community out of isolated individuals.”
He continued, “For me, one of the play’s most interesting and touching themes is the sense of being isolated and trying to find connections. It’s a look at how difficult that is, how divided people are-even people on the same team.”
Greenberg, whose play The Violet Hour was staged by Ensemble in April 2007, is a gay man who fell in love with baseball when he was in his early forties. The play, which he wrote just a few years later, reflects his newfound passion for the game.
He was searching for a way to write about the sport when, in 1999, retired Major League outfielder Billy Bean announced his homosexuality. Bean said at the time that if an active player were to come out, he would have to be an established superstar-someone who could not be dismissed easily or excluded. That statement gave Greenberg his premise.
The play premiered in 2002 in London (where unfamiliarity with the sport did not prove a problem for audiences) before moving to New York, where it played at the Joseph Papp Public Theater before heading to Broadway. Since then, it has been successfully staged at many regional theaters.
Two of the 11 actors in the Ensemble production have appeared in East Coast productions: Jacques Cowart II, who portrays gay superstar Darren Lemming, and Michael Polak, who plays Darren’s friend and fellow teammate Kippy. This is Cowart’s third time at the plate with Polak, who played a very different role-a racist and homophobic pitcher-in a Florida production.
Returning to the play in a different part “is like seeing the game from a different camera angle,” said Polak. “It’s fascinating.”
Cowart took some convincing to suit up again for the role of Lemming. “I had some hesitation; will the creative juices be flowing again? But to work with a different cast and director, and in a different space-some different colors are happening already.”
Although he loved the play when he saw it on Broadway, Fox also was hesitant about including it on the Ensemble season. “I find this community to be extremely liberal-the opposite of narrow-minded,” he said. “The gay theme didn’t give me pause. The nudity, however-I didn’t know whether audiences would accept it or not. A friend of mine who runs a theater in Albany, New York, did the play a couple of years ago. She told me the audiences loved it and it sold out. I figured if it passed muster in Albany, I think it can do so in Santa Barbara.”
Cowart isn’t crazy about strutting around the stage in the buff, but he noted, “There is definitely a point to the nudity in this show.” It brings home the players’ discomfort in the locker room, which becomes a far less relaxed place once they realize one of their own is gay.
Polak agreed. “Like Jacques, I look at the question: Is it relevant to the show?” he said. “I don’t really care to do nudity, but here, it’s essential to the storytelling. When I am doing it, I do watch what I’m eating a little bit more!”
“In this show, two of the three scenes that have nudity -in theory-should be funny,” Polak added. “I know it sounds odd, but when you’re naked, it’s always a little bit easier when people are laughing.”
Ensemble Theatre Company (914 Santa Barbara St.) presents Take Me Out from September 25-October 19. For tickets and information, call 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.