The first revival in 20 years of Richard Greenberg’s 2003 Tony Award winning play Take Me Out could not be timelier. This comedy drama about the fallout when a major baseball star for the fictional New York Empires comes out as gay reappears on Broadway when Florida, the state where 15 MLB teams conduct winter training, had just passed a law banning classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity and to date no baseball player has come out as gay during the time he was still playing on a team. While the play with its two notorious shower scenes is not as startling as it was when it premiered at The Public Theater in 2003, Scott Ellis’ fine production demonstrates that this exciting theatrical experience is still stage worthy and relevant.
Although the original cast launched the careers of many newcomers (Daniel Sunjata, Denis O’Hare, Neal Huff) as well as winning director Joe Mantello his first Tony Award, the new production has not taken any chances and has chosen three bona fide television stars: Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy), Patrick J. Adams (Suits) and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family), all of whom are perfectly cast in their roles. This Second Stage production also requires all smart phones to be placed in locked pouches during the performance (which audience members take with them) to keep cameras from going off distracting both actors and patrons.
The play’s themes include masculinity, friendship, bigotry, loneliness, religious self-righteousness, celebrity, and homophobia in sports, all of which are as important today as they were in 2002. Told as a series of flashbacks narrated by shortstop Kippy Sunderstrom (Adams), it zeros in on centerfielder Darren Lemming (Williams), the biracial “Golden Boy” of baseball, who after speaking with his best friend about being honest, calls a press conference and reveals that he is gay. It is not that he even has a boyfriend or secret but just wishes to come clean.
Not surprisingly, his teammates, as well as the fans, react in their own ways, his being a person of color only complicating the situation. But then Shane Mungitt (Michael Oberholtzer), a rednecked homophobe and bigoted new relief pitcher, joins the team and gives an interview on national television about his politically incorrect feelings. After he is suspended, his heartbreaking childhood comes to light and he is reinstated, inevitably leading up to a confrontation between him and Darren and the ultimate tragedy.
A second plot strand is Darren’s new business manager Mason Marzac (Ferguson), now assigned to him who just happens to be gay and knows nothing about baseball. Being so close to one of its superstars, however, he immediately becomes an avid fan as well as a philosopher about the game. In a justly famous monologue, he tells us that “baseball is the perfect metaphor for hope in a Democratic society.” To Darren’s amusement he explains that it is a symbol of Democracy as “everyone is given the same chance,” and that “baseball is better than Democracy … because unlike Democracy, baseball acknowledges loss.” To their surprise the socially awkward Marzac and the world-renowned Darren (both of whom claim to have no friends) bond in the course of their business meetings and make a community of two as Darren’s world as he knows it begins to fall apart. A new scene near the end of the play does not work as well as intended though it is clearly prepared for by the integrity of the characters.
As the most respected player in baseball, Williams has a quiet dignity and charm as a man of few words and few outward motions. While his wry remarks do not often come through as humor, he is very endearing as a man who has always had everything go his way but for the first time in his life must deal with events he cannot control. Ferguson in the role of Mason Marzac which won creator Denis O’Hare a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play in 2003 makes the role his own. His social awkwardness as well as his delight at being close to the superstar is patently palpable. He also has a handle on the volubility and articulateness of this clearly deep thinking man. As the narrator Kippy who is also a member of the team, Adams holds our interest as a compassionate man who uses big words and is known as an intellectual among his teammates. He has the task of doing a great deal of explaining both to his teammates and us and he does an excellent job without making it seem like exposition.
Oberholtzer’s Shane Mungitt, the hillbilly bigot who doesn’t know the difference between “colored” and “people of color” nails the role just as Frederick Weller did in the original giving a similar performance. In his second Broadway role this year after Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, Brandon J. Dirden is fine as the judgmental Davey Battle, Darren’s best friend on a rival team, who turns out to be the worst kind of religious fanatic. As their manager who is very careful what he says, Ken Marks has the gravitas of an authority figure. The rest of the cast all of whom reveal how lean and physically fit they are, as most of the play takes place in the team’s locker room, are used as comic characters: Carl Lundstedt and Tyler Lansing Weaks as two inarticulate players, Hiram Delgado and Eduardo Ramos as two Hispanic players who only speak to each other in Spanish, and Julian Cihi as the Japanese player, their pitcher, who knows no English and has dismissed his translator, and as a result is isolated from the rest of the team. He is eventually given an effective monologue in English which lets us know where he is coming from.
David Rockwell’s set design is rather conventional for the locker room and the field but works well nevertheless. The costumes by Linda Cho for the New York Empires in blue and white stripes intentionally suggest the NY Yankees while their street clothes define each character. Kenneth Posner’s lighting for both indoor and outdoor scenes cunningly focuses attention on the main characters in each scene. The sound design by Bray Poor is generally excellent though at times some of the guys sound like they are unaccountably whispering and are hard to hear. Ellis’ direction is at times leisurely but he runs a tight ship and the pace increases as the drama unfolds.
Aside from being an exciting piece of theater as its story is revealed to us in increments, Richard Greenburg’s Take Me Out still has the punch of the topical play taken from tomorrow’s headlines. Had the play been written today, there would probably be much coarser locker room talk, though the fact that the minor characters are hardly ever given a chance to speak continues to make it believable. Political correctness might have changed some of the lines; however, that seems to be less and less true today in the age of Trumpian politics. Scott Ellis’ production for Second Stage gets the maximum energy out of its shocking story. Jesse Williams, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Patrick J. Adams and cast give absorbing performances in a play that is still relevant, alas, due to the fact that in the last 20 years American sports have not changed very much.
Take Me Out (March 10 – June 11, 2022)
Second Stage Theater
The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-541-4516 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission