‘Take Me Out,’ the Revival Strikes Deep With Bravura Performances by an All-Star Cast
Once again, twenty years later, Take Me Out, the revival for the love of baseball running at 2nd Stage, strikes a pacing home run with bravura performances by Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mason Marzac), Jesse Williams (Darren Lemming), and Brandon J. Dirden (Davey Battle). Richard Greenberg’s dialogue in the minds, mouths and hearts of the cast never seems more acute, dazzling and dangerous in this “piping time” of Red State/Blue State, as he pumps up the themes of machismo, homophobia, religious bias, gender bias, racism, identity conflicts with color blindness, celebrity privilege, corporate hypocrisy and much more. The second act really takes off, soaring into flight after a perhaps too long-winded first act, whose speeches may have been slimmed a bit to make them even more trenchant and viable.
There is no theme that Greenberg doesn’t touch upon which is current and heartbreaking, except #metoo. That is refreshing because one’s personal rights vs. accountability to the public good are paramount to all spirits inhabiting various bodies whether male, female, transgender, or other. The importance of human rights, human decency and love are crucial in this play because the incapacity of all the characters to embody these qualities remains one of the focal points.
Finally, one does hope that the success of the production will remind all lovers of baseball (the most American of games), that it is the only sport where an active major league player has not come out as gay. As a matter of personal choice and risk, of course, such a decision would be momentous as it becomes for the star of the Empires (think Yankees), Darren Lemming, superbly played by Jesse Williams.
Scott Ellis’ direction is spare and thematically charged. Importantly, “sound” (thanks to Bray Poor, responsible for sound design), heightens the excitement. The emphasis is on the crack of the ball on the bat and the cheering fans. The lighting (Kenneth Posner), is spare. Florescent thin blue lines, representing team colors, square off the space to suggest the players’ emotional confinement. The staging elements rightly place front and center the social dynamic, arc of development and relationships between and among the players.
Initially, team camaraderie is thrown into disarray by Darren Lemming, who drips gold from his pores and walks upright in perfection but admits to being gay. His proclamation sends ripples of “shock and awe” through his envious teammates, who worship Lemming’s “divinity,” his steely cool demeanor and very, very fat salary,
We find his teammates response to be humorous. In order not to appear femme they restrict all their male “locker-room” behaviors because they don’t want to “entice” Darren into thinking they are his sexual “kin.” Only Kippy, his self-appointed buddy and narrator who tells part of the story (the fine Patrick J. Adams), chides him for not alerting anyone before his press announcement. Afterward, Kippy humorously teases his friend that the team lionizes who he is and would love to “be him” or “be with him,” on the down low, except that he is now very public. And that would make them very public. So they must keep their distance. Darren is annoyed at this new leprosy which he never experienced or thought he would experience because he is who he is, the team’s greatest.
Meanwhile, Darren’s announcement has forced all to confront where they stand with their own sexuality and sensitive male identity, which Kippy suggests reveals latent gay repression, and Darren suggests is the opposite. From the initial conflict, the Empires go through a roller-coaster of events and emotions that Darren didn’t foresee when he blithely walked between the raindrops and dropped the bomb on his team and Major League Baseball, assuming that because he could handle it, they should handle it.
When it comes to his devoutly traditional Christian friend Davey Battle (the always excellent Brandon J. Dirden), Darren has a blind spot. Instead of quietly discussing his sexual orientation with Davey, a misunderstanding ensues when Davey encourages him to be himself and be unafraid.
Where certain Christians are concerned, being gay is another feature of Christ’s love. Darren assumes that especially with his devout Christian friend, Christ’s love means acceptance. Greenberg holds back the mystery of Davey’s and Darren’s conversation about his being gay, revealing its importance at the end of Act II, when the stakes are at an explosive level. When we discover the identity of the individual who overhears their conversation is a witness to “the event,” we are surprised at the superb twist. Immediately, we understand the conversation happened. There is no way the “overhearing witness” would be lying. It is this conversation that becomes the linchpin of uncertainty, a tripwire to set off questions with no easy answers. There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see this wonderful production to find out the importance of the witness to the conversation.
Greenberg covers all his bases with runners in this take down and resurrection of America’s “favorite past-time.” There is personal locker room talk where nude teammates “let it all hang out,” as they shower and face-off against each other, responding to Darren’s announcement and humanizing him because of it. Greenberg’s wit and shimmering edginess work best, revealing his spry characterizations in the banter between Kippy and Darren, and in the growing friendship between Darren and his new financial advisor Mason Marzac, the superbly heartfelt and riotous Jesse Tyler Ferguson. As the consummate outsider who becomes a fan, the character of Mason has the most interesting perspective on baseball, the gay community and the events that happen in real time that result in an unresolved tragedy.
Marzac, meets with cool, collected Darren after the celebrity star outs himself. Ferguson’s Marzac is humorously over the moon about Darren’s courage, his performance and the game. Darren states coming out was not “brave,” unless one thinks something bad will happen, because “God is in baseball,” and Darren is in baseball. And “nothing bad happens to Darren.” This Icarus is flying high. He takes advantage, surreptitiously, smoothly crowing about his stature which outshines his teammates and especially the awe-struck dweeby, unathletic, unbuff Mason.
Of course, the conversation carries tremendous irony in hindsight, because like Icarus who gets burned and crashes to the earth, so does Darren. How Greenberg fashions this is surprising and ingenious. Interestingly, not only does Darren take the team with him emotionally and psychically, they are rewarded despite their corrupt Machiavellian machinations to achieve a win. The irony is heavenly. It is Greenberg’s device, savvy and sardonic, which speaks to theme. Sometimes when you win, it’s not a win if your heart breaks and there are no friends or teammates you can share it with because of emotional separation and alienation. So for the team and especially Kippy and Darren, the win becomes a grave loss that no one can ever appreciate, except baseball idolator, Mason.
But I get ahead of myself praising Greenberg’s irony.
As they discuss Darren’s financial picture, Darren clues Ferguson’s Mason in to the finer points of baseball appreciation, for example to keep “watching” the number coincidences. There’s “a lot of that,” Darren implies as Mason rattles off wondrously, “…the guy who hit sixty-one home runs, to tie the guy who hits sixty-one home runs, in nineteen sixty-one, on his father’s sixty-first birthday.” Mason is ignited by speaking to the amazing and surprisingly gay Darren.
Ferguson shines in his Mason portrayal, as he excitedly waxes over the Americanisms of the game, as pure egalitarian democracy. He emphasizes that everyone has a chance when they get up to bat. But then he states that baseball is more mature than democracy. This comment coupled with the arc of development is an incredible irony considering the team takes in a crackerjack pitcher, Shane Mungitt, who is one of the more florid Red Necks to ever appear on stage. Michael Oberholtzer’s Shane is breathtaking, a stellar, in-the-moment portrayal of a bigot you can actually feel sorry for.
Ferguson’s superbly rendered soliloquy about baseball opens a window into Mason’s kind, perceptive and loving nature. He effusively and humorously describes the requisite home run as a unique moment: the game stops and there is a five minute celebration of cheering time for the fans and the hitter, who rounds the bases like a king, though the ball has long spiraled out of the stadium into the universe. From watching the completely unnecessary round of the bases, Mason says, “I like to believe that something about being human is good. And what’s best about ourselves is manifested about our desire to show respect for one another. For what we can be.”
This is the crux of the play because after this eloquent and high-minded speech, everything falls apart. The winning streak of the Empires, the team relationships, the friendships between Davey and Darren, and between Darren and Kippy implode. And sadly, the once silent, “mind my own business” Shane unravels into a hellish state, careening into the other players with a vengeance that he may not be responsible for, given his upbringing. Thus, not even a winning season saves them from the inner reckoning they have brought upon themselves. If this is America’s favorite past time, it would be better to go back to reading.
Greenberg gives his play’s coda to Mason, who has “evolved” into a baseball aficionado. As such he is brimful of hope, yet ironically perceptive. A tragedy has occurred. However, for him the greater tragedy is that he has to wait a whole half year for the season to begin again. Baseball is that tiny thing that takes one out of the misery of life and makes it worth living, even with its tragedies. In Take Me Out, that is true for the fans. For the players, what occurs is an entirely different and terrible consequence.
Kudos to Scott Ellis’ direction and his shepherding of cast and the creative team. These include Linda Cho (costume design), David Rockwell (scenic design), and others already mentioned. Scott Ellis and the cast have delivered a profoundly humorous and vital, resonant work about a game played throughout our country, revealing that no one, regardless of how we prize sports figures, is worthy of the greatness of the game itself.
For tickets and times go to the website: https://2st.com/shows/take-me-out?gclid=Cj0KCQjwjN-SBhCkARIsACsrBz798inP5l5pUV7hZGFHOj0rWRI1spG27oalp8HyLfnArPnBlPauavsaAkcwEALw_wcB