Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 4, 2022
Take Me Out 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 Bray Poor. Fight director Sordelet Inc. Vocal coach Kate Wilson.
Ostensibly, Take Me Out is about a major league baseball superstar coming out as gay during the 2002 game season. Since we are currently living in an era of same-sex marriage and the flinging open of a great many closet doors among celebrities in a wide range of fields, it would seem something of a dated notion to wrap an entire play around the coming out of one baseball player. And yet, even now, only a smattering of minor league or retired players have done so, and not even one active major leaguer, at least not publicly. So, yes, the story of the fictional character of Darren Lemming (Jesse Williams), a superstar player for a team called the Empires (presumably a stand-in for the New York Yankees), has, unfortunately, retained its relevance.
Still, Greenberg is never one to put all his eggs in one basket. He has a lot more on his mind than just this one plot point. Indeed, you might say that the main character is not Lemming or any of the others on stage at all. Instead, it is the game of baseball itself, examined through its players and coaches and fans, in this instance all of them male.
More precisely, Greenberg uses baseball to engage in a discourse on mano-a-mano masculinity, from chest-thumping to the pecking order of professional collegiality to casual and deeper friendships, and to a yearning for belonging. Significantly, while there are two important gay characters, there are no gay relationships on view or even talked about.
And despite the setting, much of it in a locker room where heavy doses of full-frontal male nudity are on display, along with the baseball jargon that is casually tossed around, Take Me Out is a play that will speak to a wide-ranging audience, even when it opts for breadth over depth and a heavy dose of narrative to push the plot along.
Much of that narrative is presented directly to the audience by one of Lemming's teammates, his pal Kippy Sunderstrom (Patrick J. Adams, a charming and consummate storyteller). Kippy promises to fill us in on how "the whole mess" got started. But first, he wants us to understand that Lemming is someone from whom "mess does not flow forth," not only a superhero ballplayer but a man who seems to have led a charmed life: "His white father. His Black mother. Their triumphant yet cozy middle-class marriage. A Black man you could imagine had never suffered."
The plot strand involving this pair takes up one chunk of the story and, thanks to Greenberg's skilled use of language, it leads to outcomes that mix the predictable with elements of the gasp-inducing unexpected. Weaving in and out of the unfolding events are the other members of the ball team, many of whom have their own special moments, thanks to Greenberg's skill at creating supporting characters who are compelling in their own right. One stand-out is Julian Cihi as Takeshi Kawabata, a Japanese member of the team, from whom we learn of the loneliness he faces as a non-English speaking outsider. We also come to realize that a "team" is simply of group of disparate men who come together in a professional capacity for practice and the games, only occasionally forming sustaining bonds of friendship, comradery, and brotherhood.
And, finally, there is the outsider, Mason Marzac (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), Lemming's self-deprecating hero-worshipping business manager, a gay man and a misfit. When he first meets Lemming, he gushes: "What you've done is a very wonderful thing for the community," before adding, "Of course, I don't really have a community. Or, more precisely, the community won't really have me." That, in a nutshell, describes Marzac, who goes on to become the Empires' biggest fan, relishing the sense that, at last, he belongs to a community that will have him as one of its own.
In the original Broadway production, the role of Marzac was played by Denis O'Hare, whose performance was so magnificently neurotic that at times it seemed the play revolved around him. O'Hare did win a Tony for his performance, but here director Scott Ellis has gotten Ferguson (a terrific comic actor in his own right) to pull back enough so that Marzac becomes more of a team player. And that's as it should be, because more than anything, Take Me Out represents a winning team effort. Go for the naked guys if you'd like, but stay for the wonderful weave of stories performed by a terrific ensemble of actors.