The old saying “there’s no crying in baseball” gets a shellacking in the fantastic revival of the play “Take Me Out,” which opened Monday night on Broadway.
Written in 2002 by Richard Greenberg, the cracking show explores the potential consequences of highly paid athletes bottling up their emotions to the breaking point for fans’ entertainment. The pitfalls of America’s favorite pastime could, the play says, lead to disaster.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission. At the Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St.
In the drama, which — be forewarned — has a lot of full-frontal male nudity, the center fielder Darren Lemming (Jesse Williams) of a fictional team called the Empires abruptly comes out as gay to his fellow players and the press. Darren, defensively quick-witted, is apathetic about his own revelation, refuses to elaborate and believes there will be no fallout. And, for a while, he’s right.
But when a bigot pitcher, Shane Mungitt (Michael Oberholtzer), joins the Empires and starts spewing racist and anti-gay slurs on TV, the locker room mood crumbles. Some question if Darren’s admission is hurting the team. Should his life matter more than the game? It’s no spoiler to say we never meet MLB’s director of Human Resources.
Greenberg’s play, directed by Scott Ellis, comes across less hypothetical today than 20 years ago. Since then, high-profile Olympians like Gus Kenworthy, Tom Daley and others have come out. So too has Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib.
And, aside from discussions of sexuality, the question of athletes’ emotional state has also been thrust to the forefront by the likes of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles. We’re starting to wonder whether long-tolerated violent outbursts by athletes like tennis’ Alexander Zverev are actually harmful and potentially dangerous to others.
“Take Me Out” isn’t a sports psychologist’s essay though. It’s a taut and exciting play — and much more propulsive than your average spring ball game — that thankfully doesn’t concern itself with the endless sensitivities and triggers of 2022. Most of the scenes are set in the tense locker room and there is an authenticity to the players’ angst and jibes that wouldn’t exist if the script had been scrubbed clean by some modern non-profit’s propaganda officer. The show’s got belly laughs, and a lot of grit.
It helps that every cast member could be mistaken for a real ball player, which you can’t say about about most New Yorkers who got their MFA in acting. Williams, who does coy and cold very well, resembles our modern suave baseball stars, who own penthouses and wear designer duds off-field. I kept thinking about Rockies’ third baseman Kris Bryant whenever he was onstage.
Patrick J. Adams is witty as Kippy, the narrator and even-tempered big brother of the team. Julian Cihi growls as ace pitcher Takeshi Kawabata, who doesn’t know a word of English and resents his irritating cohorts. Carl Lundstedt is Toddy, an overconfident and brash dimwit; Tyler Lansing Weaks is Jason, a sweet and well-intended dimwit; and Hiram Delgado and Eduardo Ramos are Martinez and Rodriguez, who boisterously mock the others in Spanish.
The two most intriguing parts, however, are Davey Battle (Brandon J. Dirden) and Mason Marzac (Jesse Tyler Ferguson).
Battle is Darren’s best friend and a rival from another team who’s deeply religious and encourages Darren to be open and honest with himself — at least that’s how Darren interprets his wisdom. Dirden plays Battle like a teddy bear with a switchblade.
Mason, nicknamed “Mars”, meanwhile, is Darren’s gay business manager, who takes a sudden interest in baseball when his client comes out. Soon, the solitary outcast turns into an obsessive fan who lives and breathes the sport. If baseball made being gay more difficult for Darren, the game is Mars’ long-awaited liberation. Ferguson, a warm and relatable break from the meatheads, beautifully expresses the elation and intensity of being a fan. His performance is not 100% there yet, but it will be.
Don’t come to “Take Me Out” for the feel-good uplift you got from “Field of Dreams” and “A League of Their Own” — come for 100-miles-per-hour, dirt-in-the-cleats drama.