As a little budding gay growing up in a small town, I surprised even myself by really being into baseball. I knew everything about the players and their stats. I collected the baseball cards and even rooted for the Pittsburgh Pirates despite being an Ohioan who should have supported the Cleveland Indians. Even as a child, I knew their name and mascot were offensive. I loved going to the games, finding the slow pace a great opportunity to socialize when we weren’t standing up as some legend hit a ball over the fence. Of course, as I got older and gayer, I lost interest, finding the sport too repetitive. Why watch the same thing over and over when I could see a new film or TV show or play? Yes, I became much more “artistic” with my only remaining connection to America’s favorite pastime being my singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” in the spirit of Ethel Merman whenever anybody brought up the sport. Was there ever a need to come out after doing that?
All of this is to say that I attended the new revival of Richard Greenberg’s 2003 Tony-winning Best Play, Take Me Out, with some trepidation about the sports content but excitement regarding its gay themes and copious nudity. Yeah, I know, I’m predictable sometimes. Having never seen any previous incarnations, I came to the play fresh and expected a heavy-handed, issue driven show. Little did I know I’d end up in a puddle of tears, profoundly moved by this transformative experience.
Darren Lemming (Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams in his Broadway debut) plays for the fictitious Empires and is the kind of Derek Jeter-esque All Star who makes a fortune, oozes confidence and has captivated the world of baseball. His teammate and pal, Kippy Sunderstorm (Patrick J. Adams from Suits), acts as our narrator and recounts an inciting incident which led to a whole lot of messiness. Said incident, Lemming casually coming out at a press conference, creates a series of unexpected firestorms despite the fact that Lemming, who has turned everything into gold thus far, fears nothing. While some of his teammates voice their support, others hurl homophobic insults. The locker room and its showers in particular turn into a hotbed of toxic masculinity. Nothing Lemming seemingly cannot handle.
Trouble first comes in the form of Shane Mungett (Michael Oberholzter), a rube from the minor leagues brought in for his excellent pitching skills. At his own press conference, he spits out racist and homophobic insults, leading to an increasingly dangerous series of events. Chief participant in these occurrences is Lemming’s best pal and rival, Davey Battle (Brandon J. Dirden), a religious man who had encouraged Lemming to be his authentic self, not knowing it would lead to Lemming revealing he’s gay. Lemming also meets with his new financial manager, Mason Marzac (Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family), a gay man who tries to keep Lemming from retiring when the tension grows unbearable.
What Greenberg and director Scott Ellis bring us may sound like the hot topic play I’d feared, but its execution far exceeded those expectations. With its breakneck pace, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking dialogue, imaginative staging, crisp, simple but beautifully effective scenic design by David Rockwell, and fantastic performances across the board, Take Me Out approaches masterpiece status. Although Julian Cihi’s (Only Murders In The Building) Takeshi Kawabata, a Japanese player, gets a wonderful monologue exposing his poetic mind, two Spanish speaking players, Rodriguez and Martinez (Eduardo Ramos and Hiram Delgado respectively) get strapped with the thankless task of insulting Lemming’s sexual orientation and nothing else. They don’t even get first names. Had they been given monologues along the likes of Kawabata’s, then all would have been forgiven. As it stands, it’s the one glaring error in a near perfect show.
Williams feels like a natural for the stage, nailing his role as a man who fearlessly presents himself to the world, yet unearths his vulnerability when he least expects it. This actor oozes magnetism, holding his own with Ferguson, who blew me away with his richly detailed, expertly timed, multi-layered portrayal of a man who doesn’t feel a part of the gay community yet surprises himself when he grows to love a sport he had previously not felt had any part in his gay experience. His baseball monologue turned me into a blubbering mess while also making me want to get myself to Dodger stadium ASAP. It’s one of those perfect moments in a theater where you find yourself captivated by a performance and by what he expresses, recognizing a seismic shift in how one can see the world in a different light. It’s here where Greenberg turns what could have been a movie-of-the-week issue into true art.
Oberholtzer finds moments of grace in his seemingly irredeemable character and Dirden, an MVP from The Americans, traverses such a difficult role with such effortless nimbleness. You may not like the character, but you can’t help but love the actor. Same goes for Adams, who does a lot of the heavy lifting with such ease and clarity.
Rather than being that “gay baseball play”, Take Me Out transcends that reductive moniker and brings fresh meaning to the spirit of team work, to its original view of baseball being better than democracy, and to the possibility that this sport, which lost me so long ago, could capture my renewed interest. That salacious nudity turns out to be anything but, as it’s as important as anything else in forcing the audience to examine the ill effects of male social conditioning. Like its title, which has so many meanings, the play has joined the pantheon of productions which I can look at from so many different angles and find meaning in all of them.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Take Me Out has been extended through June 11th at The Hayes Theater, New York City. For more information and tickets head to 2ST.com.