The euphoria of discovery conveyed by Richard Greenberg through a gay outsider who becomes an impassioned baseball fan hasn’t dimmed a bit in the two decades since Take Me Out was first produced. Other things, however, have changed in director Scott Ellis’ finely tuned and superbly cast Broadway revival for Second Stage. Issues that once seemed too reflective of the playwright’s hand at work now seem urgently keyed into a contemporary world in which masculine anxiety and its bilious consequences are being held up for scrutiny.
The quasi-religious baseball convert is socially maladroit, decidedly non-sporty money manager Mason Marzac (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), whose love for America’s favorite pastime sprouts almost overnight when he’s handed the account of superstar center fielder Darren Lemming (Jesse Williams). But the plot driver of this thoughtful, erudite, funny and poignant play — a triple Tony winner in 2004 — is biracial Darren’s seemingly casual decision to reveal that he’s gay in the middle of a news conference.
The fallout from that announcement takes his Empires (a thinly disguised version of the Yankees) teammates and fans by surprise, unleashing waves of uneasiness. The ripple effect triggers homophobia and racism, class divisions, identity struggles and manly insecurities, exposing the fissures in the fragile bonhomie of the team in ways that lead inexorably to tragedy. It’s to Greenberg’s credit that it’s not the same hackneyed tragedy that usually results from such stories.
Darren is a singular protagonist partly because his Blackness — white father, Black mother — is initially as much a non-issue as his relaxed masculinity. A “one-man emblem of racial harmony” is how white teammate Kippy Sunderstrom (Patrick J. Adams) describes him. “Even in baseball — one of the few realms of American life in which people of color are routinely adulated by people of pallor, he was something special,” adds Kippy. “A Black man who you could imagine had never suffered.” The play’s conflict arises from Darren being forced to reckon with the reality of being a queer person of color for the first time in his charmed adult life.
Back in 2002, when Take Me Out premiered in London en route to New York’s Public Theater the next year and from there to Broadway, no Major League baseball player had ever come out publicly during his career. That remains the case 20 years later, although a growing number of professional athletes in other sports have cracked open the closet door. But the play’s resonance goes beyond the enduring invisibility of gay men in pro baseball; it hits harder in a post-Trump America where homophobes, racists, white supremacists and other bigots have been emboldened to own their toxic prejudices.
The title, of course, alludes to the Tin Pan Alley song that serves as baseball’s unofficial anthem, as well as to queer coming out. But it also pertains here to Mason — or “Mars,” as he’s beyond thrilled to be nicknamed by Darren — being taken out of a life he describes as “tiny, so daily.” Finally, it’s heard in the ugly context of a threat — to take someone out, or kill them.
Greenberg, having shared the epiphany of his own obsession with baseball that began with the 1998 record season in which the New York Yankees scored 114 wins, invests a lot of himself in this play. Mars’ arias about the glories of the sport — the cathartic beauty of the home-run trot; the celebratory union between the player and the crowd in that moment; the way baseball improves on democracy by acknowledging loss — spill out in bursts of rapture, played by Ferguson on a giddy high of revelation.
The actor doesn’t supplant the memory of Denis O’Hare’s magical performance in the original production. But he nails every laugh and brings a jolt of nervous energy each time he shows up, an essential disruption in a play with long stretches of direct-to-audience narration. “Of course, I don’t really have a community,” Mars says, acknowledging his position as an LGBTQ sideliner. “Or, more precisely, the community won’t really have me.” His emergence from terminal awkwardness to ecstatic, zero-fucks-given transport is the endearing heart of the play.
One of the more subtly interwoven points of Take Me Out is the propensity for miscommunication among men, particularly on matters of masculine identity. “How can things go wrong when two people speak their truth?” asks Davey Battle (Brandon J. Dirden), a religious family man who is Darren’s lifelong best friend and now a player on an opposing Major League team.
Self-doubt is not in either man’s vocabulary — in Davey’s case because of the foundation of his faith in God, in Darren’s because of his belief in himself as an untouchable divinity. Davey has the bombastic air of a preacher, even in a casual bar conversation, and when he expresses concern over Darren’s delay in acquiring the regulation wife and three children required for happiness, Darren misinterprets his words as encouragement to reveal more of himself. “I want my whole self known,” Davey tells him. “You too, Darren. You should, too.”
The principal observer of all this is Darren’s best pal on the team, Kippy, who feels mildly betrayed by his buddy’s lack of warning before dropping the bombshell of his sexuality to the press. Kippy is intelligent and open-minded enough to accept Darren, even to congratulate him on seizing his freedom. But he’s also alert enough to notice the slight edging away of other players from Darren in the clubhouse, illustrated in the play’s much talked-about shower scenes, with their full-frontal nudity.
First to put the abrupt switch from towel-snapping, easygoing banter to self-consciously averted gazes into words is doltish Toddy Koovitz (Carl Lundstedt), who sees Darren’s newly public sexual identity as a violation of the team’s sanctuary. “Now I gotta go around worrying that every time I’m naked or dressed or whatever you’re checking out my ass,” Toddy defensively tells him. A similarly dim catcher, Jason Chenier (Tyler Lansing Weaks), goes to the opposite extreme, telling Darren he’s in awe of him regarding “the whole gay thing” and clumsily demonstrating his tolerance with some muddled history of the “Grecians.”
As played by Williams (Grey’s Anatomy) with an assured balance of megawatt charisma and superiority that slowly curdles into disgust, Darren rides out these and other eye roll-inducing reactions with sardonic humor. But the friction becomes harder to ignore with the arrival of newly recruited pitcher Shane Mungitt (Michael Oberholtzer), an Arkansas hillbilly with a hard-luck story. Shane is a taciturn clubhouse presence, but when his propulsive pitcher’s arm earns him media attention, he spews out a string of racial epithets in a TV interview, saving a homophobic slur for last.
Rather than quelling internal unrest, Shane’s suspension from the team draws out previously unspoken animosities, not just toward Darren but also between Latino players Martinez (Hiram Delgado) and Rodriguez (Eduardo Ramos) and stoical Japanese recruit Takeshi Kawabata (Julian Cihi). The latter has a beautiful monologue late in the play about his method of trying to be an American: “I make my mind a prairie. I think nothing. I think of great flat stretches of nothing. It soothes me.”
Even team manager Skipper (Ken Marks), who claims to have always considered Darren a son, both before and after his coming out, suggests where that affection ends and judgment begins when the center fielder protests Mungitt’s eventual reinstatement. And when a shocking incident untaps the full poison of all that threatened masculinity and festering rage, Kippy repays Darren’s earlier betrayal with one of his own, putting his loyalty to the team first.
Working on a stylized set by David Rockwell that depicts the stadium, the clubhouse and various other locations with elegant economy — graced by supple lighting from Kenneth Posner that pulls us into the intimate exchanges and into the game — director Ellis expertly navigates the play’s shifting moods.
His extensive background in comedy makes him an excellent fit for the lighter moments, particularly Mars’ interludes, which are somehow both daffy and profound, even poetic. But Ellis digs into the more sobering developments with equal skill, and his experience with musicals gives him a nimble grasp of the tricky rhythms of Greenberg’s loquacious dialogue. His sharp eye for casting helps him coax incisive performances from a terrific ensemble without a weak link.
It was reported late last summer that Ellis — also a seasoned TV hand, whose work includes episodes of 30 Rock, Modern Family and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — would direct a limited television series adapted by Greenberg from the play, with Williams attached to star. This taut production shows that in our contemporary climate of division, there are plenty of innings left in the material.
Venue: Helen Hayes Theater, New York Cast: Patrick J. Adams, Julian Chi, Hiram Delgado, Brandon J. Dirden, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Carl Lundstedt, Ken Marks, Michael Oberholtzer, Eduardo Ramos, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Jesse Williams Director: Scott Ellis Playwright: Richard Greenberg Set designer: David Rockwell Costume designer: Linda Cho Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner Sound designer: Bray Poor Fight director: Sordelet, Inc. Presented by Second Stage