Despite winning the 2003 Tony Award for Best Play, Richard Greenberg’s deeply flawed “Take Me Out” did not seem a likely candidate for a major Broadway revival. Yet, under Scott Ellis’s insightful direction of a dream cast, this 2022 revival, which opened Monday at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater, is deserved; the story of a star baseball player who comes out of the closet is suddenly anything but old news.
Greenberg writes powerful scenes, and it helps that some of them in “Take Me Out” are fueled by racial slurs and homophobic taunts delivered by the team’s newest and none-too-bright pitcher, Shane Mungitt. Michael Oberholtzer’s performance in the role starts quiet and stays that way right through his first round of insults, much to the team’s shock. Mungitt becomes a slow-burn study in isolation.
Greenberg also writes very funny scenes, most of which go to the star player’s new financial manager, Mason Marzac. Jesse Tyler Ferguson improves on Denis O’Hare’s Tony-winning turn in the original production by waiting until the second act to deliver a full-throttle stand-up comic performance. Marzac isn’t so much closeted as he is one of those numbers nerds who finds himself not welcome on Grindr despite living within walking distance of thousands of other gay men in Chelsea. Marzac becomes a most touching study in isolation.
Greenberg also writes dialogue in Spanish and Japanese, which gives us other studies in isolation through the players Takeshi Kawabata (Julian Cihi), Martinez (Hiram Delgado) and Rodriguez (Eduardo Ramos). Why Greenberg doesn’t give the Latino players first names remains a mystery. Whatever, they and Kawabata are isolated too.
In the first act of “Take Me Out,” it’s easy to chalk up the extensive Japanese and Spanish dialogue as dramatic license on the part of Greenberg, who imbues another ball player, Kippy Sunderstrom, with the ability to translate what these three characters are saying into English for the benefit of the other players and those of us sitting in the audience. Through sheer charm, Patrick J. Adams (“Suits”) makes sense of Kippy’s linguistic talents. His is the kind of wonderfully understated performance that’s never recognized come Tony Awards time, but it’s through Kippy that we’re told the story of “Take Me Out.” With the character’s wife and three kids, he’s definitely not an outsider. Adams almost makes us feel sorry for straight white guys, the last group in the country to be denied entrance to the Victim Culture. Most important, Adams possesses the innate charisma to make us want to follow Kippy’s journey, which is an education in sexual and racial politics. Adams prevents a sometimes creaky play like “Take Me Out” from falling apart.
Back in the 2002-03 Broadway season, Daniel Sunjata earned a Tony nomination for his performance as the star player, Darren Lemming. He lost to O’Hare. Anyone would have lost to O’Hare, since the Tonys invariably honor the most acting over the best acting, and few have ever acted on stage more than O’Hare did in “Take Me Out.”
In his Broadway debut, “Grey’s Anatomy” alum Jesse Williams in the Lemming role more than holds his own against Ferguson. In part, it’s because Ferguson holds back in the first act. Williams also personifies in his interpretation of Lemming what’s debilitating about the Celebrity Culture.
In its original run on Broadway, “Take Me Out” was very much a play about homophobia and the isolation it creates for its victims and its perpetrators. Today, Greenberg’s play is also about the isolation of the stars we worship. In the first act, Williams exudes arrogance and the privilege that comes with that all-devouring fame. In the character’s first sit-down talk with his financial adviser, Williams simply commands the stage with his earned superiority as Ferguson buzzes around him with fawning compliments and revealing non sequiturs. Later, Williams reveals how his quiet arrogance is his protection against racism, homophobia and a public that could turn on him at any moment. No one in “Take Me Out” is more alone than its star player standing alone on a pedestal.
Ellis and his cast deliver scene after scene of great drama. How Greenberg gets to some of those scenes in the second act is little more than sloppy dramatic license, unfortunately. The final confrontation between Mungitt and Lemming, as mediated by Kippy, provides emotional fireworks. Unexplained is that Mungitt landed in prison for murdering Lemming’s best friend, Davey Battle (Brandon J. Dirden), and Lemming would be the last person allowed to see the accused at this moment in time. Even shakier is the idea that Lemming would have a best friend who’s a raving religious bigot. Before Lemming came out of the closet, did Battle never express his “pervert” view of homosexuality?
This “Take Me Out” is worth seeing, even if it’s not built on a firm playing field.