Saturday, October 11, 2008

Catch This Play

All blog and no play?
Well, that’s easy to remedy

It was, in the words of Voltaire, “the best of all possible worlds.”

My wife Bonnie wanted a visit to the theater – which was embarrassingly lacking in our entertainment of late – and I needed a little catharsis, having not yet come to grips with the sad ending of the local baseball season.

I took her request to “take me out” to a play... any play... as literally as possible. Bought the tickets, but didn’t tell her what play we were seeing until we got to Baltimore’s Fells Point Corner Theatre Friday night.

The title: “Take Me Out.”

The subject: Baseball, sort of and sort of not.

When she saw the title and the historic baseball photos decorating the small lobby of the theater’s converted firehouse, Bonnie was prepared for the worst – but instead got what she really wanted in seeing a fine play, terrific acting performances, and... male nudity.

The setting of Richard Greenberg’s play is the locker room of a fictional Major League team, the Empires, whose $100 million star centerfielder Darren Lemming has made a startling revelation: He’s gay.

How his teammates and best friend react is the plot in a three-act tale that mixes drama and comedy, and illustrates the depth of baseball as life metaphor and sexual double-entendre.

It’s not all about strikes and balls, although the latter – well, they hung out quite noticeably. I asked Bonnie when she had seen so many penises all at once, and she noted that there were no more than three visible at any one time on stage. So what can I say? She knew the count.

See, it’s those baseball double-entendres again, rearing their ugly heads.

Well, maybe not ugly. That’s just a little high and inside hyperbole on my part.

In fact, nudity is integral to the story, given the way of the locker room and a gradual stripping away of the layers of protection behind which people hide their true feelings about life and each other.

The local production directed by Terry J. Long stars Maboud Ebrahimzadeh ( as a remarkably believable Lemming, heading up an effective nine-man stage lineup that also features Tony Viglione as his well-meaning teammate and wannabe friend Kippy Sunderstrom, and Sean Mullin as late season call-up pitching closer and homophobic, ignorant racist wacko Shane Mungitt. (For baseball fans, magnify John Rocker twentyfold or better.)

For a guy who later acknowledged not knowing any Japanese, Gary Deleon adds a colorful supporting performance as star pitcher Takeshi Kawabatta, who supposedly knows no English, and Edward Zarkowski positively and comically flames as gay accountant Mason Marzac, who is assigned the financial adviser job to post-closet Lemming.

Most of the audience was male, gay, and enthusiastic, and that really added to the ambiance of the evening.

It also provided a novelty for Bonnie: It was the women’s room that had no line at intermission.

If you’re anywhere near Baltimore, “Take Me Out” runs only through Oct. 19 at the theater at 251 South Ann St., three days before the real-life World Series is scheduled to begin at Boston or Tampa Bay. Play tickets and information:

R.I.P. ‘Uncle’ Albert

I was reading the death notices in Saturday's paper and found a beloved newspaper colleague listed among the departed, Albert Sehlstedt Jr.

I affectionately called him “Uncle Albert.” He was long an inspiration and friend during my career at The Baltimore Sun, where he had been over the course of nearly 40 years the newspaper’s congressional reporter and carved out a beat in aviation and aerospace.

Though a lay person himself, Al explained difficult science in a way that most readers could understand. I asked him once how he managed to do that, and Al modestly credited the scientists who gave their time to patiently answer his many questions.

He covered the American space program from its inception, through the moon landings and Challenger disaster. Not about to overwrite his prose, Al crafted this lede to his Houston-datelined story on the event of July 20, 1969, that electrified and for a shining moment united this planet:

Men from earth stepped onto the surface of the moon tonight.

Two American astronauts realized a dream of centuries by treading on the powdery lunar surface nearly seven hours after making a “very smooth” landing in the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.

Neil A. Armstrong, 38, of Wapakonela. Ohio, made the first historic step at 10:56 P.M., descending a ladder of nine rungs on one of four legs of the lunar landing craft. He was followed by Col. Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., 39, USAF, of Montclair, N.J., at 11:14 P.M. As Mr. Armstrong put his first foot on the surface, he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Al was, inevitably, among the huge media throng when the shuttle Challenger exploded in the beautiful January sky off Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1986. His terse lede:

The space shuttle Challenger exploded 74 seconds after liftoff yesterday, killing all seven astronauts, including New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Two orange balls of fire shot from either side of the shuttle’s normal white trail of engine smoke before the entire craft disappeared into an enormous fireball eight miles east of the launching site as Challenger climbed toward orbit in an often delayed 25th shuttle mission.

At the funeral home Saturday, Al's press badges from the historic Apollo 11 lunar mission and Challenger's ill-fated "Shuttle 51L" mission were pinned in the center of a poster-board display of family photos, along with a full-size souvenir sticker depicting the shuttle mission patch with pictures of the doomed astronauts.
In a commemorative Sun "front page" created by colleagues for his retirement two decades ago and also on display, Al's personal recollections of some events were included – and considering how much for granted we take space flight these days, this seems particularly poignant. He was telling about the launching of the first American into space, Alan Shepard, on May 5, 1961:
In those last 30 seconds of the countdown, all the details, all the briefings and all the other preparations were out of my mind. I must have stood like a statue looking at the Redstone, perhaps two miles away from the press site where the reporters had assembled to watch the lift-off.
There was a lump in my throat the size of an orange and I remember saying to myself, 'There's a man in that rocket.'... I was transfixed.
I also remember that launch. I was in 10th-grade music class at Baltimore City College, and listened to the live radio broadcast over the high school's PA system. For all the hullabaloo, Shepard's suborbital flight lasted just 15 minutes.
After his retirement, Al was contracted by The Sun to craft advance obituaries on notable Marylanders, arranging confidential interviews with most of his subjects just for that purpose.

In a compilation of selected and historic front pages titled “A Century in The Sun,” from which the Apollo 11 and Challenger accounts were obtained, the byline of Albert Sehlstedt Jr. is among the most represented – the last in the edition of Jan. 25, 1993, on the death of Justice Thurgood Marshall.

I’m not sure when Albert’s final byline appeared in the newspaper, but possibly it was in September 2005 on the obituary of Baltimore investment banker and TV-radio broadcast presence Julius Westheimer. I was the night metro editor that evening and, on very short notice, extensively updated and added material to the long-before-written obit. I had the honor of my byline appearing atop the story, next to Uncle Albert’s.

By then, Al was three years into his own decline from Alzheimer's disease, and he died Oct. 9 at the age of 86.

I’ll always treasure him.

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