In this first and first-rate Broadway revival of Richard Greenberg’s 2003 Tony-winning comedy, which is a gay man’s love letter to baseball, Jesse Williams portrays Darren Lemming, a star player who is so good at the game – so universally worshipped his entire life for his grace and skill — that he can’t imagine any repercussions to his coming out publicly as a homosexual.
So he does. And there are repercussions.
That’s basically the plot of “Take Me Out,” which is running at the Helen Hayes Theater through May 29. The plot, especially its climax in tragedy, is not the best thing about the play.
And no, I’m not talking about the extensive nudity in the all-male cast, although that seems to be generating the most buzz.
“Take Me Out” demonstrates Richard Greenberg’s skills both as a dramatist and a humorist, and especially as a master of repartee and wordplay. He is such an adept wordsmith that the title “Take Me Out” has four or five different meanings, each of which describes a different layer of the play.
The title of course suggests the song “Take me out to the ballgame,” which composer Albert von Tilzer and lyricist Jack Norworth wrote in 1908, and remains one of the three most familiar tunes in America (after “Happy Birthday” and “the Star Spangled Banner.”)
“Take Me Out” treats baseball the way “Friday Night Lights” treated football – which is to say, it’s steeped in the lore and the lingo, it feels authentic, but you need not know (or care) about the game to be engaged in the characters.
“Take Me Out” also evokes the process of coming out. Almost any coming out story involves some memorable reactions, and Greenberg is good at exploring how Darren’s revelation plays out in the hyper masculine, communal setting of a team of professional athletes. Some of it is amusing, such as the verbal jousting with some of his less-than-articulate teammates. Some of it is thought-provoking, such as conversations with his best friend on the team, Kip (Patrick J. Adams), and the team’s manager Skipper (Ken Marks), who expresses nothing but support for his player, initially, but eventually can’t conceal his annoyance: “Is it right, for instance, for somebody to land one of the fattest contracts in baseball history and only then reveal his interesting little personal quirk?” The reaction is even harsher with his best friend Davey Battle (Brandon J. Dirden) who is a star player on a rival team, and a deeply religious man.
The freshest layer embedded in the title is the story of Mason Marzac (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a mousy gay guy with great financial acumen who has been assigned by his firm to be Darren’s new business manager. Given his new client, Mason sees it as his duty to watch his first-ever baseball game. But he is soon won over to the sport, finding it transcendent. “Life is so tiny, so daily,” he tells Darren. “This — you — take me out of it.” He becomes not just an over-the-top enthusiast, but nearly a poet of baseball. Through Mason, Greenberg (obviously himself a fan) riffs on its beauty and its significance — how it is “a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society.” Indeed, “baseball is better than democracy because, unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss” – which inspired, thanks to its newly acquired subtext, the biggest applause of the show.
Denis O’Hare won the Tony for his portrayal of Mason in the original Broadway production, a memorable performance that placed the focus of the play (at least in my memory) on his character.
Ferguson is fine in the role, but doesn’t stand out in the same way, and perhaps for that reason the focus has shifted, to Kip (Adams does stand out.)
Kip is the teammate with whom the private, laconic Darren opens up, to the extent he opens up to anybody. The team’s intellectual, Kip is a good match for Darren’s wit. When Kip tells Darren that his coming out has made him more likable, and more human, Darren asks: “What was I before?”
“Sort of … godly.”
“And now I’m human?”
“Isn’t that a demotion?“
Kip is also the narrator. He is the one who fills us in on the many aspects of Darren’s perfection from the get-go, and not just as an athlete e.g: “The one-man-emblem-of-racial-harmony stuff. His white father. His black mother. Their triumphant yet cozy middle-class marriage. 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.”
Kip leads us through the last meaning of “take me out” – in the sense of annihilation. That kicks off because of a teammate, a barely verbal pitcher from the boondocks named Shane Mungitt (Michael Oberholtzer), who uses racist and homophobic language. This eventually leads to an out-of-left field (or actually out of the pitchers mound) tragedy, which doesn’t entirely work for me, but at least doesn’t involve the hoary plot device of a gay person committing suicide.
Under the direction of Scott Ellis, the 11 member cast is excellent, right down to the Japanese-speaking Julian Chi and the Spanish-speaking Hiram Delgado and Eduardo Ramos — their foreign languages put into the play in part, I think, to underscore the difficulty that men have in communicating with one another. The ensemble conveys persuasively the individual lives and underlying tensions of a professional sports team in ways that, for better or for worse (mostly worse), have not changed.
When the original production of “Take Me Out” ran on Broadway in 2003-2004, only two Major League Baseball players had come out as gay to the press — both only after they retired. Two decades later, it’s still only those same two.
Take Me Out,
Hayes Theater through May 29 (Update: extended to June 11)
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Scott Ellis.
Scenic Design by David Rockwell; Costume Design by Linda Cho; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman;
Cast Patrick J. Adams, Julian Cihi, Hiram Delgado, Brandon J. Dirden, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Carl Lundstedt, Ken Marks, Michael Oberholtzer, Eduardo Ramos, Tyler Lansing Weaks, and Jesse Williams.