(l to r) Jesse Williams and Ken Marks in ‘Take Me Out.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
“I’m gay.” Thus read the headline on the first email I saw following Second Stage Theater’s uneven revival of Richard Greenberg’s 2002 Tony-winning play Take Me Out. The message was from a political candidate, barely newsworthy in an age when even presidential candidates reveal their orientation. Not so in professional sports, though, where barely a handful of marquee names have said they’re gay. And in baseball, only one did it while still active, but not publicly.
So Greenberg was onto something when, 20 years ago, he wrote this play about the repercussions of an All-Star baseball player announcing he’s gay. Take Me Out, however, is a play that, for all its thematic virtues, enticing language, laugh-worthy lines, and dramatic highlights, never quite finds the right balance between comedy and drama, theatrics and authenticity.
Although often amusing, Director Scott Ellis’s production at the Hayes Theater is rarely moving and occasionally fails the plausibility test. It also contains an abundance of full-frontal male nudity that leaves a more annoyingly indelible impression than much of what surrounds it.
Darren Lemming (Jesse Williams, TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”), a Derek Jeter-like superstar on the New York Empires (think Yankees), is half-Black, half-white, handsome, built like Apollo, well-spoken, and widely worshiped. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he outs himself to the press. Given our culture’s sensitivity toward any such sexual revelation — in particular contexts, it’s still big news — it incites a backlash that inevitably leads to catastrophe.
Greenberg takes his time before reaching that result. Once the plot has been sufficiently fueled with character development and relationships, and with locker room tension supplemented by paeans to baseball, the second act rockets to its denouement with fiery histrionics and plot contrivances that dip precariously into melodrama.
Much is shown in flashbacks accompanying monologues delivered by two characters. One is Kippy Sunderstrom (Patrick J. Adams, TV’s “Suits”), a verbally dexterous intellectual who is Darren’s closest teammate; the other is Mason Marzac (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, TV’s “Modern Family”), Darren’s new business manager, a nebbishy, middle-aged gay man in awe of his godlike client. Ignorant of baseball at first, he morphs into a Bob Costas of its glories. Ferguson’s performance, something like his “Modern Family” role on steroids, provides much of the pathos and laughter.
The locker room background is filled in colorfully with Skipper (Ken Mark), the paternal manager; Martinez (Hiram Delgado) and Rodriguez (Eduardo Ramos), a Tweedledee and Tweedledum-like pair of Latinos; Takeshi Kawabata (Julian Cihi), a Japanese pitcher devoid of English; Jason Chenier (Tyler Lansing Weaks), an empty-headed catcher, an oxymoron when you consider a catcher’s job; an even stupider redneck reliever, Shane Mungitt (Michael Oberholtzer, Hand to God), a homophobic racist with a horrible backstory; and Toddy Koovitz (Carl Lundstedt), yet another “dimwit,” as Darren calls him. A championship team made up of unabashed ignoramuses? I don’t think so.
Then there’s Davey Battle (Brandon J. Dirden, Skeleton Crew), Darren’s best friend, a star on a second-rate team. The deeply pious Davey has no idea that Darren is gay, but his advice that Darren makes his true nature known to the world is the spur that drives him to out himself. One of Greenberg’s farfetched constructs is that the God-fearing Davey would turn so viciously on Darren or that Darren would be surprised at how rabidly homophobic his good friend is.
The scenes in which half-a-dozen men take showers are such that theatergoers are required to have their phones sealed in special pouches to prevent them from taking photos or videos. I could discourse at length on the nudity, but I will say only that I wish an alternative way of staging had been found.
Most of the actors look sufficiently like ballplayers, but they’re saddled with overly exaggerated characters. Michael Oberholtzer plays a stereotypical redneck stereotypically; Patrick J. Adams portrays someone who—give me a break!—perfectly understands colloquial Spanish and Japanese but can’t speak them; and Brandon J. Dirden barely clears the hurdle of playing someone who has no compunctions about calling his best friend a pervert. The most consistently honest performance belongs to Jesse Williams, his basic reality only heightened by the artificiality of those around him.
David Rockwell’s set, overseen by the iconic silhouette of Yankee Stadium’s roof, shifts nicely between the lockers, the showers, and a locale backed by a stadium image; Linda Chō’s costumes are what you’d expect, although the uniform pants end in slacks-like cuffs and no one wears cleats; Kenneth Posner’s lighting helps shift the atmosphere efficiently; and Bray Poor’s sound design makes every batted ball sound perfect.
Take Me Out is more a double than a home run, but a double still has value. And, for all its errors, there are still plenty of peanuts and Crackerjacks in it, although not enough not to care if you never go back.
Take Me Out
Helen Hayes Theater
240 W. 44th Street, NYC
Through May 29
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).