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Before the Fall

Showtime in Gotham

For sheer gravity and word of mouth, no New York theater event last week could match the pomp and lachrymose circumstance of the city‘s 911 memorials -- tributes that dominated local news coverage and darkened most stage venues on the 11th. Even without the anniversary ceremonies, the stage was in a twilight period, with summer shows either over or ending, and with big-ticket Broadway shows about to preview. (The latter include a Michael Crawford golf cart, Dance of the Vampires; the Billy Joel--juked Movin’ Out; and the Sally Field--Bill Irwin recasting in Edward Albee‘s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) Still, September and October hold some new and old must-sees for out-of-towners, along with shows that go clunk in the night. Here are a few.

TAKE ME OUT Richard Greenberg’s play about a gay baseball player‘s coming out is everything such a work could be, which is to say, nothing we would expect -- politically incorrect where it hurts, whimsically reverential toward our fallen national pastime and, ultimately, a gruesomely funny tale of arrogance confronting ignorance. When mixed-blood superstar Darren Lemming (Daniel Sunjata), a handsome demigod who knows he’s a handsome demigod, offhandedly outs himself during an interview, it throws his New York Empires teammates and adoring fans for a loop -- “You‘ve introduced the Billy Budd thing,” explains Darren’s erudite teammate and confidant, Kippy (Neal Huff). The popular Darren‘s admission hardly gets him tied to a fence, but when a late-season slump requires the Empires to call up a John Rocker--type redneck pitcher (Frederick Weller), the innings roll toward Greek tragedy. Greenberg has refreshingly created a play with both great roles and supercharged dialogue, along with acerbic observations about baseball and American society. He has also written it in three acts with not just one narrator, Kippy, but also with a secondary commentator (Denis O’Hare as Darren‘s nebbish accountant). Against all expectation the structure works, thanks to Joe Mantello’s crisp direction and a tight technical matrix that effortlessly shifts the action between a locker room, bar and playing field. There are few wasted lines in Take Me Out, and even its nude scenes are as essential as a seventh-inning stretch. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., (212) 239-6200.

THE DONKEY SHOW Talk about That ‘70s Show. This disco-injected take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has become an institution near N.Y.‘s Chelsea Docks and a hit at London’s Hanover Grand, will finally plant its flag in L.A. this spring when the show opens at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip. Written and directed by Diane Paulus, Donkey isn‘t a typical update of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of delusions and mistaken identities, so don‘t expect the Bard’s poetry to trip off the tongues of classically trained actors wearing polyester and razor-blade medallions -- although David C. Woolard‘s costuming is painfully authentic. Staged in a real nightclub with cabaret table seating, the play’s not so much the thing as it is the thang, a libidinous inspiration for a malarial dream facilitated by cocaine and a magisterial DJ. The action occurs at Club Oberon, where Oberon (Lauren Rubin), Titania (Heather Lee Sturzl) and a host of scantily clad fairies frolic, while Puck (Mark Wilson) glides about on roller skates. Audience members boogie beneath the big mirrored ball as cross-gendered dancers climb up balconies and clamber atop patrons‘ tables. The performers, strapped with remote mikes, writhe and conspire as a giant coke spoon gets cooked up with the magic potion that turns Titania into an ass-chasing party girl. While it lasts only about an hour, the show with its supercharged energy, memorable barrage of ’70s hits and even more memorable costumes (check out Titania‘s butterfly pasties) is worth a visit to this Studio 54--on--Avon. Club El Flamingo, 547 W. 21st St., (212) 307-4100.

HARLEM SONG George C. Wolfe’s musical, which combines new tunes with standards, is less an uptown biography than an all-dancing, all-singing Chamber of Commerce brochure. Filmed interviews of longtime residents and newsreel footage lead us into Harlem, from its ragtime beginnings as the spiritual capital of African-Americans through its decline from drugs and disastrous urban-renewal projects. Most of the evening is justifiably concentrated on Harlem‘s Renaissance period of the Roaring ’20s -- a wicked number called “Doin‘ the Niggerati Rag” recalls the cheekier jabs of Wolfe’s The Colored Museum. To be fair, this spectacle (original music and arrangements by Zane Mark and Daryl Waters, choreography by Ken Roberson) is breezy and entertaining. But it can‘t make up its mind who the narrator is. Is it Miss Nightingale (B.J. Crosby), a well-dressed guide to style and attitude, or is it the evolving series of characters played by David St. Louis? Ultimately we’re left with a beautifully tailored historical travelogue (costumes by Paul Tazewell) that mentions Harlem‘s heroes (Marcus Garvey, Joe Louis, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.) without ever hinting at the forces that ultimately made them fallen sons. Likewise, when it comes to Harlem’s decline, Wolfe is never eager to point fingers, only to snap them. Apollo Theater, 253 W. 125th St., Harlem, (212) 307-7171.

ROMAN NIGHTS Literary mash notes seldom make great theater, a point underscored by Franco D‘Alessandro’s stage bouquet for two of his idols, playwright Tennessee Williams and Anna Magnani, the fiery Italian actress who appeared in Williams-scripted films The Rose Tattoo and The Fugitive Kind. A major problem is D‘Alessandro’s desire to make this a two-actor evening, which has both characters spending far too much time talking to imaginary people in order to lay out exposition. (“What‘s that, Roberto, you want me to do what?” is the kind of line Magnani is likely to say while looking above the audience to an invisible paramour.) For his part, Williams often talks directly to the house to bring us up to date on his long friendship with Magnani. Things don’t get much better in the moments when Tennessee and Anna are conversing together, languid chapters of mutual admiration that rarely betray conflict and never important actions or decisions. In fact, entire segments of dialogue could be reshuffled without any noticeable shift in logic. While actress Franca Barchiesi certainly has the Magnani temperament down, she looks as though she‘s spent far more time in the gym than her subject might have; Roy Miller’s Tennessee is consistently affable, although his character was not exactly a plush toy to his friends. Director Bick Goss might consider working with costumer Pamela Snyder to slip in a clothing change for Miller, whose Tennessee wears the same outfit over a 12-year period. DR2 Theater, 103 E. 15th St., (212) 239-6200.

HAIRSPRAY Just when it seems that the pink-and-turquoise landscape of retro kitsch has been strip-mined for laughs and nostalgia, this Broadway mega-hit successor to The Producers comes along, one of those rare cases of a stage musical besting its film inspiration. (Tickets are $100 a pop.) Those familiar with John Waters‘ 1988 movie know the story: Fat girl Tracy Turnblad (Marissa Jaret Winokur) dreams of landing a dancing gig on The Corny Collins Show, Baltimore’s answer to American Bandstand. It‘s 1962, and the after-school TV program is the home of teen throb Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison), who twists with a troupe of Aryan kids every day of the month save one, which is given over to “race music.” Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan‘s book makes the show thoroughly entertaining and affecting, with Harvey Fierstein’s turn as Tracy‘s loudmouthed mom a highlight that never overwhelms the other characters. Waters did little more than give this musical his blessing and tips about Baltimore, but everything about Hairspray is a loving and faithful stage realization of the auteur’s benignly subversive vision. Marc Shaiman‘s pop-parfait music is neatly spiked with satirical lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and comes to life thanks to Jack O’Brien‘s direction and Jerry Mitchell’s ebullient choreography. Even though Hairspray is a monument to technical dazzle, it beats with a human heart. Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd St., (212) 563-5544.