Review: In ‘Take Me Out,’ Whose Team Are You On?

Not for nothing is Darren Lemming, the fictional center fielder of a team called the Empires, also at the center of “Take Me Out,” Richard Greenberg’s gay fantasia on the national pastime.

Said to be a “five-tool player of such incredible grace he made you suspect there was a sixth tool,” Lemming surpasses even Derek Jeter — on whom he is to some degree modeled — in versatility, steadiness and the kind of arrogance that, arising from excellence, adds up to charisma. He’s a natural star for baseball and, when he decides to come out as gay, a natural irritant for drama.

At its best, “Take Me Out,” which opened on Monday in a fine revival at the Helen Hayes Theater, is a five-tool play. It’s (1) funny, with an unusually high density of laughs for a yarn that is (2) quite serious, and (3) cerebral without undermining its (4) emotion. I’m not sure whether (5) counts as one tool or many, but “Take Me Out” gives meaty roles to a team of actors, led in this Second Stage Theater production by Jesse Williams as Lemming and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as his fanboy business manager.

True, dropping a few flies along the way and throwing some wild pitches — forgive the baseball metaphors, which the play indulges with the zeal of a convert — makes “Take Me Out” a bit baffling in parts. It’s not the kind of work that benefits much from postgame analysis, which reveals flaws in construction and logic. But in performance, now no less than in 2002, when it had its New York debut at the Public Theater, it is mostly delightful and provocative. Perhaps especially for gay men, it is also a useful corrective to the feeling of banishment from a necessary sport.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, center, as a business manager overjoyed with his new superstar client who awakens in him a love of the game.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

By that I don’t mean baseball itself but the examination of masculinity through its lens. In “Take Me Out,” Lemming’s announcement that he’s gay, prompted by no scandal and involving no lover, is essentially a pretext for a disquisition on maleness. What it finds in the locker room, where the Empires change, shower, snap towels and squabble, is as despairing as what it finds on the field is still hopeful and good.

Connecting them, Lemming is a figure of godlike mystery. Aside from his purely technical skills, he is the kind of person, as his teammate Kippy Sunderstrom (Patrick J. Adams) floridly describes him, from whom mess does not “flow forth.” Lemming assumes that whatever he does will redound to his benefit, and that unlike most people for whom coming out is momentous, his gayness will be just another of “the irrelevancies” in his life, like being handsome and biracial.

What he hasn’t counted on is the way, for his teammates, the revelation dims his aura of perfection while exposing cracks in their less perfectly airtight psyches. Their nudity now feels different to them, which is why the audience is asked to consider it as well. (But not the wider world; patrons are required to put their phones in Yondr pouches to prevent photography.) However well built he is, a man wearing nothing is inherently undefended.

As a result, the Empires, formerly on track for the World Series, begin to lose cohesion and, soon thereafter, games. Homophobia bubbles up from the dark places of other men’s souls; even Lemming’s closest friend, Davey Battle, a religious man who plays for an opposing team in more ways than one, comes unglued by it. And, with the arrival of Shane Mungitt, a pitcher called up from the minor leagues, the confusion erupts in a shockingly violent act.

Adams, left, as the veteran player Kippy Sunderstrom, and Michael Oberholtzer as Shane Mungitt, a talented pitcher carrying a ton of baggage. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Yet “Take Me Out” is not only about that descent into chaos on the playing field; it is also, in the story of the business manager, Mason Marzac, about the elevation of the spirit in the same locale. Marzac, the kind of gay man who feels he has no place in the heterosexual world or even the gay community — “I’m outside them. Possibly beneath them,” he says — is overjoyed when Lemming, his new client, comes out. In that act he sees the possibility of a reintegration into the mainstream of Americanness, and soon develops a maniacal interest in the game.

That his newfound fandom is mostly a way of redirecting an impossible crush does not make it any less meaningful; that kind of sublimation may indeed be an unspoken aspect of many sports manias. Ferguson makes that feeling legible in a softer, less biting take on Marzac than the one originated by the brilliant Denis O’Hare, who won a Tony Award for the 2003 Broadway production. Ferguson brings out Marzac’s woundedness in a wonderfully detailed comic performance that is nevertheless full of yearning and unexpected elation.

But if Lemming and baseball take Marzac out of his shell of protective pessimism — one of the many meanings packed into the grand-slam pun of the title — Marzac also takes Lemming out of his shell of aloofness. Oddly it is this element, the most fantastical in real life, that feels most believable onstage, and only in part because the locker-room drama, which involves too many obvious tensioning devices as well as too many morons, slightly collapses as the story develops. A late scene added for this production, between Lemming and two policemen, doubles down on that problem.

Williams, left, and Brandon J. Dirden in the first Broadway revival of Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play, a Second Stage production.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But as Lemming and Marzac form a bond — not romantic but not untender, either — the ideas that Greenberg is juggling, about integration on the ball field and integration of the psyche, fully pay off. Williams, a stage novice but a longtime star of the television series “Grey’s Anatomy,” nails the way the glamour of the gifted can keep them from full lives; perhaps the seeming effortlessness of his own career gives him insight into the downside of too much ease.

Under Scott Ellis’s assured and sprightly if visually underpowered direction, the other cast members make excellent utility players, moving swiftly between spotlight moments and background work as members of the team. In particular, Michael Oberholtzer, as Mungitt, seems to disappear into his damaged self when he isn’t spewing bizarre biographical tidbits or hatred. And as Battle, Brandon J. Dirden, just off a stellar turn as a factory foreman in “Skeleton Crew,” gives a perfectly etched performance at the other end of the spectrum, finding in his faith a sanctimony that supersedes even love.

It is in fact Battle who unintentionally sets the plot in motion, telling Lemming that to be a full human he should want his “whole self known.” Ultimately, “Take Me Out” is about the danger that challenge poses to some people — a danger others may know nothing about. Still, Greenberg shows us, it is crucial to happiness, and not just for gay men, even if it introduces immense difficulties. A game needn’t be perfect to be won.

Take Me Out
Through May 29 at the Helen Hayes Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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