Broadway Review: TAKE ME OUT (Second Stage’s Hayes Theater)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on April 15, 2022

in Theater-New York

PLAY BALL!

Get your popcorn and peanuts and Cracker Jack. Grab your Empires pennant and Empires cap and maybe your Empires team jacket. Then head on down to the ballpark or, in this case, the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway. For inside is now housed a locker room, a dugout, a field of dreams and a triple play production of Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning play, Take Me Out. Initially produced off-Broadway in 2002 at The Public Theater, this revival from Second Stage hits a homer with stellar performances, nuanced direction and an acting ensemble that tosses and bats to each other like a championship baseball team.

Julian Cihi, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Michael Oberholtzer, Patrick J. Adams,
Jesse Williams, Hiram Delgado, Eduardo Ramos, and Ken Marks

On the surface, Mr. Greenberg’s writing deals with the surprise coming out of the closet by a major league baseball superstar at the height of his career. However, the story proves to be about much more. This exploration of professional baseball, celebrity and the intersections those worlds create ventures past sexual preference and becomes an examination of the cost of living one’s entire truth. The deceptively simple title gains traction as the show progresses – for it’s not just Take Me Out to the ball game but Take Me Out of my suffering, Take Me Out of my narrow life, don’t Take Me Out of my silence considerations that could apply to the Empires gay center-fielder and a couple other men as well.

Jesse Williams and Patrick J. Adams

But let’s recap – at the start of this often funny memory play, the audience is directly addressed by Kippy Sunderstorm. Kippy is one of the players on the Empires, a major league baseball team. Kippy not only introduces the show but functions as our guide throughout. The piece is structured as a series of monologues that set-up flashback scenes. A little tedious at first as it feels we are being told, rather than shown, the action. However, this structural device ultimately works well for this particular script. Kippy is best friends with team superstar Darren Lemming. Lemming is super handsome, super wealthy, super talented and super privileged. Darren also uses his exceptional attributes as a shield against any real feelings or connection with other people. Truly, all he wants to do is play baseball.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays Mason, and Jesse Williams plays Darren

And because things have always gone smoothly in his young life, even as a person with one black parent and one white parent in America, he naively doesn’t expect any blowback when he voluntarily outs himself to the public. But blowback he gets – not that he cares. That is until a new fireball pitcher joins the team. The new pitcher, Shane Mungitt, is a mono-syllabic, uneducated, dimwitted hick from the Deep South with a killer arm. When rising star Mungitt is asked at a press conference how he likes playing on his new team, this unassuming hillbilly lets loose with an unfiltered string of racist and homophobic observations about his teammates. Relationships soon devolve within the ball club and something terrible happens – leading Darren’s new business manager to comically observe near the end of the play, “This has been a fuck of a season”.

Michael Oberholtzer (foreground) plays relief pitcher Shane Mungitt

While there are still relevant reasons to produce this tale in 2022, like any well-worn jersey, it is beginning to fray. Society has mostly moved on from where we were in 2002. A major sports figure revealing a same-sex preference no longer holds the shock value it once did. We’ve also raised our collective awareness regarding issues of bullying, consent and sexual violence. Our revised perspective may make us feel differently about the characters now than perhaps we did during the play’s first run. But that could also be a point of the writing – maybe the good people aren’t all good and the bad people aren’t all bad.

Patrick J. Adams and company

Smartly, this sleek production doesn’t try to shock. As Greenberg positions one man basically at the top of society, another man solidly in the middle and yet another man seemingly coming up from the bottom, Scott Ellis’s sensitive and knowing direction instead leans more into the inner pain caused by each man’s constrictions and the consequences when each man either chooses, or is forced into release, from his respective limitation. Still, Ellis could probably have gone a bit further in teasing out the risk of being a newly out gay man in an extremely straight, male environment. While the character is written to handle all of this without a flinch, does that inner gay kid who had to police his feelings in the showers after high school baseball practice ever really go away? And speaking of showers, the play’s heralded inclusion of full, male nudity is handled in such a matter-of-fact way that any initial salacious thoughts are soon dispersed and the men onstage quickly become just guys in a locker room. That the actors can seem so comfortable while completely naked onstage must be attributed to the excellent work of Intimacy Consultants Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet.

Patrick J. Adams

As narrator and team uniter Skippy Sunderstorm, Patrick J. Adams is the rock solid foundation upon which this team and production are built. Whether funny, snarky, condescending or understanding, Adams delights as an all-around Good Guy who may hold a few secrets himself. In having to continually switch from directly  addressing the audience to being in a  scene, Adams displays a unique ability to easily shift focus which keeps the play moving and the story building. Performing both trajectories with little obvious effort and an open heart, Adams’ vulnerability when talking with Darren about the reality of their friendship is quite moving.

Jesse Williams

As the man presumably at the top of society, Jesse Williams shines. He is perfectly cast in the role of baseball superstar Darren Lemming. His Darren so completely and naturally accepts his superiority in all things that, rather than being off-putting, he’s actually kind of charming. Williams also gilds Darren with a subtle, emotionally distant wall of protection. As an actor, Williams doesn’t take in his audience to the extent of his more stage-seasoned colleagues, yet this helps fuel the perception that Darren engages with people, but not really. In the few, brief moments that Williams allows Darren to drop his outer defense, his inner turmoil is heart-breaking to witness. In an impressive Broadway debut, Williams delivers an understated, humorous and powerful characterization.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson 

Jesse Tyler Ferguson nearly steals the show with his sensitive, observant and hilarious performance as Darren’s new business manager, Mason Marzac. Ferguson is an excellent comic actor whose newfound love of baseball upends Mason’s structured, mostly mid-level existence. Ferguson radiates the sincerity and longing of a true fan, especially those fans who don’t possess the athleticism to excel in their favorite sport yet offer unabashed adulation to those who do. Ferguson and Williams work very well together and share some of the funniest and most poignant scenes in the show.

Patrick J. Adams and Michael Oberholtzer

As Shane Mungitt, a man existing pretty much at the bottom of society’s ladder, Michael Oberholtzer stuns. In what could easily have been a one-dimensional portrayal, the talented Mr. Oberholtzer adds so much depth, humanity and contradiction to his Shane that the audience feels both revulsion and compassion towards this truly unfortunate human being, sometimes simultaneously. As Davey Battle, Darren’s close friend from an opposing team, powerhouse actor Brandon J. Dirden makes a lasting impact. This Broadway favorite embodies a more experienced baseball superstar, harkening back to the likes of Reggie Jackson. His hyper-masculine stroll as he exits stage after confronting Lemming about his sexuality is a brilliant and culturally specific touch, reaffirming Battle’s unshakable allegiance to the dictates of hegemonic masculinity.

Brandon J. Dirden

At this performance, the Empires remaining players are portrayed by Eduardo Ramos, Julian Chi and understudies Stephen Wattrus and Michael Castillejos. They all deliver fully realized and recognizable characters whether speaking Japanese, English or Spanish. Broadway regular Ken Marks scores as the team’s reliable manager Skippy and also as a liberal, accepting baseball fan who may not be so accepting after all. Scenic design by David Rockwell is minimalist but he gives just enough physical definition to locate where we are, but not so much that it blocks the fluid nature of the show’s memory-scape. Kenneth Powell’s evocative light design encompasses everything from the cool, blue tones of an evening on the ball field to the unforgiving harshness of locker room overheads. Especially noteworthy is his use of a single neon tube to delineate a cramped, oppressive room in a police station. Linda Cho’s costumes are wonderfully germane to each character and communicate who each man is at a glance. Particularly interesting are her baseball uniforms that never seem to be dirty, even following a game.

Jesse Williams and Ken Marks

After an absence of nearly twenty years, the Empires are once again taking the Broadway field and playing better than ever. Try to catch them at the Helen Hayes Theater before their season ends. An evening out with the Empires might be as thrilling as hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.

Jesse Williams and Brandon J. Dirden
photo by Joan Marcus

TAKE ME OUT
Second Stage’s Hayes Theater (240 West 44th Street)
opened April 4, 2022 (reviewed April 13)
ends on May 29, 2022 EXTENDED to June 11, 2022
for tickets, call 212-541-4516 or visit 2ST.com

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