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Theatre in Review: Take Me Out (Second Stage/The Hayes Theatre)

Patrick J. Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus

Take Me Out begins with a baseball superstar coming out of the closet. It features several scenes with half a dozen naked men. And it's not about sex. Go figure.

To be sure, once the big announcement gets made, things do get a little tense in the team's shower room; as someone notes, a certain prelapsarian innocence has been lost. But they needn't worry. Darren Lemming, of the world-champion Empires, isn't declaring his sexuality out of a need for approval or because he has acquired a partner. As he cheerfully admits, you'd never suspect him of a raging libido: "If I'm gonna have sex -- and I am because I'm young and rich and famous and talented and handsome so it's a law -- I'd rather do it with a guy, but when all is said and done? I'd rather just play ball."

In truth, Darren has come out -- calculatedly and without advance notice -- because he can. An astonishing, once-in-a-generation talent and, not incidentally, the product of a racially mixed home, he is conducting a test of his apparently untouchable celebrity, thereby proving to himself that even in major league sports the gods have their privileges. His gamble pays off; discounting a little grumbling from some of his dimmer teammates, he continues on his glide path to the Hall of Fame.

Instead, Take Me Out has other things on its mind, beginning with language, the sheer power of words to shape our lives for better and worse. The first act, which, arguably, relies far too much on direct address, brings together three central characters to pitch a series of verbal triple plays, most of them of about the national pastime. In the wrong hands, this sort of oratory can be self-serving, the enemy of drama, but Richard Greenberg writes with such grace, so much silken irony, that even when nothing seems to be happening, it's easy to fall under his spell.

For example, Kippy Sunderstrom, the play's narrator, says of Darren, "Even in baseball -- one of the few realms of American life in which people of color are routinely adulated by people of pallor, he was something special: A Black man who you could imagine had never suffered. For a few years, he seemed to be the answer to every question." Darren, insisting that baseball offers a proof of God's existence, says, "Look around you: Typhoons, earthquakes, avalanches. War. He's absent. The Holocaust. Nowhere. That's not how He works. He's got a whimsical nature. He makes Himself known in stupid stuff. Trivia. Baseball. The Grammys. But especially baseball." And, in the play's most famous speech, Mason Marzac, Darren's business manager, sees baseball as "a perfect metaphor for hope in a Democratic society," adding, "Unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss. While conservatives tell you, leave things alone and no one will lose, and liberals tell you, interfere a lot and no one will lose, baseball says: Someone will lose. Not only says it -- insists upon it!" With such articulate souls taking the stage, Take Me Out can't help being entertaining, even in its slower moments.

And, as it happens, the play's disastrous chain of events is sparked largely because of words. The catalytic agent is Shane Mungitt, a phenom relief pitcher newly arrived from the minor leagues. A man of few words -- and that's putting it mildly - he almost obsessively keeps to himself; when Kippy and Darren try to draw him out, they learn of a Dickensian past that includes his parents' murder-suicide and a childhood spent in orphanages and foster homes. Kippy, deeply moved, notes, "That's always seemed to me the worst kind of hardship: not to have words to name the world with...to shape yourself to...So, while most of the guys hated him and kept their distance, I secretly, fell hopelessly in...custody of him." But Kippy's charity will be severely tested when Shane gives an interview spiked with racial slurs and concludes by complaining, "But every night t'have'ta take a shower with a f----t?

In the uproar that follows, Shane is suspended but the Empires, in a slump, need his expertise and, once he issues a tongue-tied letter of apology, his rehabilitation looks likely -- at which point, Darren rebels and, to his dismay, discovers that his influence has its limits. Tensions rise in the clubhouse, especially after an intervention by Davey Battle, Darren's longtime friend and a committed Christian, followed by an ugly shower-room incident and culminating in a death on the field that may or may not be an accident. If, as Mason insists, baseball is better than democracy, it also mirrors the conflicts of a pluralistic society.

As the crises mount, Greenberg skillfully shifts the play's focus from the power of language to the problems of democracy. The Empires are marked by racial divisions thanks to the presence of two Latino players who remain in the background and Takeshi Kawabata, a Japanese star siloed off from the others by barriers of language and culture. And if Darren's Blackness often seems beside the point, his sexual orientation provides the fuse for a series of explosions that ignite a shocking and unforeseen outcome. Seen nearly twenty years after its debut, Take Me Out impresses again with its wit, wisdom, and lyrical appreciation of baseball. But, if anything, its slow-burning drama speaks more directly to our fractious era of identity issues.

Scott Ellis' production, which unfolds with practiced ease, is paced by a trio of star performances. Jesse Williams' Darren is arrogant, cagey, possessed of an unearthly cool, but notice the sudden uncertainty in his eyes when, complaining about Shane's return to Skipper, the team's manager, the latter turns the argument against him, casually asking, "Is it right, for instance, for somebody to land one of the fattest contracts in baseball history and only then reveal his interesting little personal quirk?" Jesse Tyler Ferguson is ideally cast as Mason, a shlumpy, middle-aged exile from the gay community who falls wildly in love with the game, dropping his mild manner to forcefully push back when Darren threatens to quit. Patrick J. Adams is thoroughly assured as Kippy, a narrator equally omniscient -- he even serves as Takeshi's translator -- and unreliable, holding back a key fact that ultimately causes a major breach with Darren.

. Other fine team players include Michael Oberholtzer as Shane, a feral boy-man incapable of comprehending the chaos he causes; Julian Cihi, as Takeshi, stoic and lost in a culture that doesn't understand him; Ken Marks as the subtly manipulative Skipper; and Brandon J. Dirden, mopping up in both of his scenes as Davey, who urges Darren to show his true self to the world, then condemns what he sees.

David Rockwell's fluid, atmospheric scenic design includes the attractive silhouette of a stadium, a bird's-eye view of a baseball field that spins to become a locker room interior, and a set of working showers; Kenneth Posner's lighting is loaded with graceful touches, including a colorful sunset. If Linda Cho's costumes occasionally seem a little contemporary for a play set in 2002, they nevertheless provide each character with a highly individual profile. Bray Poor's sound design takes center stage with a series of a effects that create the sensation of games in progress.

There are moments when Take Me Out feels a tad bloodless and unrealistic; living in these days of nonstop ginned-up controversy, it's hard to believe that Darren's coming out wouldn't unleash a storm of angry right-wing bloviation. (It's interesting to note that, nearly two decades after its premiere, professional sports are still almost entirely, if allegedly, heterosexual.) But don't be fooled; behind what sometimes seems like an oversophisticated piece of writing is a disquieting question: How are we to live together without tearing each other apart? --David Barbour

(15 April 2022)

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