A star athlete comes out as gay, and the narrator asks, “Why now?” Greeting that question with a shrug, the revival of “Take Me Out” from Second Stage is a down-the-middle throwback that neither connects squarely with the present nor meaningfully replays the past.
It’s true that Richard Greenberg’s ballgame drama has become only somewhat less speculative a fantasy in the 20 years since its premiere. There are still no openly gay players active in Major League Baseball, nor among the most famous active pros in men’s sports, a time-honored arena for fixations on masculinity, identity, fairness and power.
But there’s little retrospective insight to this production, from director Scott Ellis, which is a straightforward retelling of a story whose provocations were largely reliant on context. And if the play has enduring resonance — as a study of prejudice, or even a romance with America’s pastime — here it’s more an echo than a roar.
“The whole mess started,” we’re told, when a New York pro named Darren (presumed to be inspired by Derek Jeter and played here by Jesse Williams) decided to come out. His best friend on the team, and our narrator (Patrick J. Adams), says Darren was considered a totem of racial harmony for being half Black and half white, a callback to pre-Obama, post-racial liberal daydreaming.
Now Darren has become a locus of layered contradictions, having also come out as gay at the height of his career. The story hinges on how other men — his teammates, his coach, a bigoted new pitcher (also believed to be inspired by a real player) — respond to his difference. Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays Darren’s business manager, who falls hard for the game after learning they play for the same team (he’s also gay).
As the baller who throws himself into the spotlight, Williams has a confident but reserved stage presence, as suits a character who would prefer to stay focused on the game. But early on, in particular, his delivery assumes the even tone of a radio sportscaster, giving the sense that he’s a step removed from the action. And where Adams’ narrator is meant to be spinning an intriguing yarn, his recap of events lacks either engaging urgency or folksy charm.
Ferguson makes for a more lively and personality-forward storyteller when his character turns to the audience, acting as a kind of proxy for lay people, fans and gay New Yorkers suddenly interested in sports. His philosophical case for the meaning of the game comes closest to arguing for the play’s relevance beyond its time-bound circumstances. (It’s another curious contradiction that the revival relies in part on the allure of celebrity, with three television stars as leads, while dealing in somewhat outmoded notions of fame.)
Ellis’ staging is primarily presentational, more often like a story being told rather than enacted. Even when they aren’t directly addressing the audience, the men line up against rotating locker banks, in front of projections of the outfield, or underneath working shower heads (scenic design is by David Rockwell). And while the expected nudity feels neither gratuitous nor played for titillation, it would be naive to deny its part in the play’s provocative appeal (all audience cellphones are sealed in Yondr pouches).
There’s a slackness, too, to the play’s dramatic climax, when what is essentially a murder investigation feels like a belabored retreading of established animus. What are we to make of the hate-tongued pitcher (Michael Oberholtzer) with a traumatic backstory whose ignorance is softened by humor? It might be easier to imagine the character’s complexity if there weren’t others — like two fiery Latino players constantly sniping in Spanish — who also feel so flatly stereotypical.
“It was tragic,” Ferguson’s wistful, starry-eyed accountant sums up in the end. It’s a tough assessment to buy, even though a man has been killed.
Sports are indeed a heated battleground for social oppression, but the sacred delusions of masculinity are hardly the most vulnerable target. This year alone, legislation that would bar trans kids from school sports teams has been considered in 30 states. Fourteen have signed such bans into law. The movement to protect and expand the livelihood of LGBTQ+ people has evolved to meet the plans of attack. It’s time for art to do the same.
“Take Me Out” opened at the Hayes Theater on April 4, 2022.
Creative: Written by Richard Greenberg; Directed by Scott Ellis; Scenic Design by David Rockwell; Costume Design by Linda Cho; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman.
Producer: Second Stage Theater.
Cast: Patrick J. Adams, Julian Cihi, Hiram Delgado, Brandon J. Dirden, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Carl Lundstedt, Ken Marks, Michael Oberholtzer, Eduardo Ramos, Tyler Lansing Weaks and Jesse Williams.