The Broadway Theater Review: 2ST’s Take Me Out
In big Broadway news, the release of someone stealing a video of Take Me Out‘s celebrated shower scene is unwrapping itself all over the web, right alongside Patti LuPone giving it to one selfish overly-entitled audience member who refused to wear her mask properly, even when LuPone asked her directly from the stage during a now infamous talk-back session. “Who do you think you are?” she rightly asks, and I would say the same to that sneaky soul who captured the nakedness of Take Me Out‘s celebrated star, Jessie Williams (Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere“), who dutifully plays the central character, a star baseball player by the name of Darren Lemming, with conviction and authority. It’s not at all fair of that camera-weilding person, stealing the scene so blatantly from the audience to broadcast online. That’s not part of the commitment that any actor makes when stepping on the stage, especially when completely naked. Some are calling it a publicity stunt by the show, but I don’t believe it. The actor made a deal with the audience. This is for you to see, not to record and show to others. I’m doing it for this one moment, and this moment alone for us to experience together in the safety and security of the theatre. It is as wrong as recording anyone’s nakedness (or non-nakedness, for that matter) anywhere anytime without explicit permission.
And the moment he uploaded online is central to Richard Greenberg’s play, Take Me Out. Not just because of the nakedness of the man, but because of what it means within the context of the play. It is there, not to be gawked at for his utterly perfect physicality (which it really is, I will say), but to create an internal discomfort within the audience. For us to feel unsure. One that Kippy, another baseball player of the same team, played strongly by Patrick J. Adams (USA’s “Suits“) unpacks to another player while displaying his whole naked self in the first, but not the recorded, shower scene. That one, well, actually both, we watch with utter fascination and a certain level of tension as the whole scene plays out inside of this very tight and stellar production, wisely directed by the talented Scott Ellis (Broadway’s Kiss Me, Kate). He states, with a wise knowing, everything we need to know about what this play is trying to tell us, and it is quite the smart unveiling.
It’s been over twenty years since I first saw this play on Broadway. Directed by Joe Mantello, that production starred the handsome Daniel Sunjata as the Out star-baseball player and the phenomenal Denis O’Hare giving it his all as his new accountant Mason Marzac, with Neal Huff as Tippy, Frederick Weller as the racist relief pitcher Shane Mungitt, and Sex and the City‘s David Eigenberg as Toddy. It was sublime back then, and it has aged beautifully since. Take Me Out, a title worth unpacking, premiered off-Broadway at the Public Theater in the fall of 2002 after a successful run at the Donmar in London, UK with almost all of the same cast (except for Eigenberg). The play then transferred to Broadway, opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre in February 2003 where I was lucky enough to see it. It ran for 355 performances and joyfully took home the 2003 Tony Award for Best Play.
The writing is as rich and provocative as it was back then, filling the stage with much more than naked men showering. Greenberg has hit it out of the park, delivering a strongly formated play about the discomfort felt in the clubhouse and beyond now that one of their teammates has come out as gay. They can’t seem to be playful anymore, Kippy rightly points out. His outting of self has taken that away. Now, when they come together in the shower after a game or practice, they self-consciously make sure their eyes connect, pupil to pupil, and don’t wander anywhere dangerous. They have forgotten how to be naked men showing in that once-safe space, forcing us, the audience, to also pay attention to our own self-awareness. For a gay man/audience member, we all know the awkwardness and danger of a locker room from our high school years. It was the most tense place in school for a non-out teenager, but here, playwright Greenberg (The Babylon Line; Our Mother’s Brief Affair), the discomfort has been flipped around, shifting it to the straight men and their almost instantaneous discomfort with their own nakedness. Particularly, a gay man’s proud cockiness, unwilling be small and ashamed. All of this, because of one man’s public announcement of his personal sexual orientation. As if the announcement has somehow changed things.
Directer Ellis has made sure that this revival is as exceptionally grounded as the original, forming a team of pros to knock this play out of the ballpark. He has brought together some solid players; the very handsome Julian Cihi (Broadway’s Doctor Zhivago) as pitcher Takeshi Kawabata; Hiram Delgado (59E59’s Agnes) as both ball player Martinez and a late in the show turn as a policeman; Carl Lundstedt (Hartford Stage’s Reverberation) as the dim Toddy Koovitz; Eduardo Ramos (Hampton Theatre’s Vanya and Sonya…) as Rodriguez as well as the other policeman; and Tyler Lansing Weaks (Encores!’s The New Yorkers) as Jason Chenier; and the play doesn’t let us down, barely giving up one ball or strike to the opposing team.
Williams delivers a cool and impressive turn as the super-handsome confident Darren, a biracial baseball superstar hitter, modeled after, most likely, the former American Major League Baseball player Derek Jeter of the Yankees. Darren’s announcement and rationale seem almost too cool for this proverbial school, casting an aura this is both self-assured but alarmingly unemotional, and almost arrogantly uncaring. It sends shock waves through the team, unearthing reactions that Darren never really cared to think about, and, in the end, doesn’t really want to pay much attention to. He’s the star player of the team and believes (and he might be right) nothing can knock him off that high priest altar, that is until a fastball knocks some of the wind out of his possibly overblown isolated sails.
With a strong narration from the “smartest man in baseball“, Kippy, the seemingly peace maker and care taker of the lot, leads us through the wise and current themes of the play with a dutifully purpose inside some well formulated scenes and interactions. Homophobia, racism, class, and the flexible forms of masculinity in professional (and non-professional) sports are unpacked and discussed in the most natural and fascinatingly well-crafted moments of conflict and engagement. It borders on one too many things to fully pay attention to, but the energy of the cast finds its way solidly.
One of the best is inside a role that felt much bigger the last time I saw the play. Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Broadway’s Fully Committed; PH’s Log Cabin) brings out his AAA gay game as Darren’s new sports-adverse money manager, Mason Marzac, a gay man so uninterested in the sport of baseball, that is until Darren becomes his first Out athlete client, and is given a simple yet sincere invitation into the game’s inner circle. That’s where things change, and boy, what a magnificently structured coming out party Mason has in the hands of Ferguson.
Elevating the part to a majestic level of professional play, Ferguson manages, against a dynamic background, courtesy of scenic designer, David Rockwell (Broadway’s Tootsie); with a strong creative assist from costume designer, Linda Cho (Broadway’s Anastasia); lighting designer Kenneth Posner (Broadway’s Beetlejuice); and sound designer Bray Poor (Broadway’s True West), to deliver a monologue that wraps up democracy and baseball with such a powerfully fun ease that we can only stand up and give him the full spectator wave he so richly deserves. It’s moving and ultimately very clever; particularly how he unpacks the poetry of the home run trot. He makes us care for this man and his new found passion, and we watch gleefully as we feel his life rise up to the occasion when he tells his new hero, “Life is so tiny, so daily and you take me out of it.” You see that play that Greenberg did there? 😉
But the crash and turn has to come, and it does in the body of fast pitcher, slow thinker, Shane Mungitt, played with overt conviction by Michael Oberholtzer (LCT’s The Babylon Line). He stays quiet and to himself, for the most part, until that day when he opens that mouth of his, and a steady stream of racist and homophobic remarks come flying out to everyone’s horror, sending the team, the player and us into a heightened sense of discomfort and turmoil. His suspension seems to confuse and shock the redneck player, but as the team starts to slide in their performance on the field, he is brought out once again to play. Frustrating the almost always unflappable Darren. The scene rattles the cage, particularly when he talks to Ken Marks’ (Broadway’s Airline Highway) character, Skipper about the suspension of the suspension.
The field has been flipped, unfortunately for all, and particularly Darren’s best bud from an opposing team, Davey Battle, captivatingly played by the excellent Brandon J. Dirden (Broadway’s Skeleton Crew). Darren’s fracture with his morally righteous buddy, the fight that occurred just before that now infamous shower scene battle for dominance, cracks the whole thing wide open, and recovery is going to get complicated.
Each moment building on the next, as Take Me Out purposefully deals with the huge topics of gender, race, sexuality, celebrity, and spirituality, not to mention how they all play out in the professional sports arena. The police room scene delivers, as powerfully as a home run with the bases loaded in the ninth inning. I’m not sure who I would say is the MVP of this play and production, but go, lock up your phones, pay the cast the respect they deserve, and take in the wonder that is Take Me Out on Broadway.
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