Take Me Out review: A star-studded cast takes center field on Broadway
UPDATE: Since this original review, Take Me Out went on to win the 2022 Tony Award for Best Play Revival. It is returning to Broadway for a limited engagement, Oct. 27 through Jan. 29, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. Bill Heck is joining the cast, replacing Patrick J. Adams as Kippy Sunderstrom.
During the second half of Take Me Out — Richard Greenberg's Tony-winning and Pulitzer-nominated play — business manager Mason Marzac (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who identifies as gay, gives an impassioned speech about baseball to his business client Darren Lemming (Jesse Williams, making his Broadway debut.) Marzac tells him that despite baseball being America's pastime, he never cared about the sport until Lemming came out as gay, and the same sentiment might apply to anyone walking into the show who doesn't know much about baseball. You might not be familiar with the ins and outs of the sport, but it'll be hard to walk out of the Helen Hayes Theater after two hours and fifteen minutes without caring about the story you just watched unfold onstage.
Take Me Out tells the story of Williams' Lemming: a biracial, Derek Jeter-esque baseball star who is beloved by both himself and the public. He's also the star center-fielder for a fictional Major League Baseball team called the Empires. When Lemming chooses to publicly come out, he fails to believe — despite warnings from his best friend Kippy Sunderstorm (Suits' Patrick J. Adams) — that his proclamation will change anything on or off the field.
Unfortunately, Lemming's instinct is wrong. Throughout the course of the play, repercussions of his announcement unravel faster than a baseball hurtling down the center field line at 100 mph, starting with relief pitcher Shane Mungitt (Michael Oberholtzer)'s racially and homosexually-charged television interview that sets everything into motion. A team set on making it to the World Series becomes distracted by the fallout of Lemming's announcement, culminating in an ugly display of anger, fear, and misunderstanding between the players — and the world — that leads to tragedy on the field. The events of the show ultimately leave Lemming to reconcile with a relatable question: whether or not it was worth embracing his identity at the cost of others.
Greenberg first wrote Take Me Out after a Marzac-like obsession of the sport took hold back in 1998, when the New York Yankees had a record baseball season with 114 wins. The following year, Billy Bean retired from Major League Baseball and subsequently came out as gay, becoming only the second player in history to do so. (Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics player Glenn Burke was first in the 1970s.)
Two years later, in 2002, Greenberg's play had its first premiere in London where it ran for two months before transferring to New York. Following an acclaimed off-Broadway run, it went on to premiere on Broadway in February 2003. The current production, opening today and running until May 29, marks the first time the show has been revived in almost 20 years. In a sense, not much has changed — that is, you can still count on the fingers of one hand the number of MLB players who are out of the closet. Racism is still as much of a major player as a star centerfielder is, and male masculinity in the world of sports — not to mention the world of entertainment — is still widely demonstrated.
And yet, a lot has changed. This particular production was originally meant to open in 2020 but shut down in its first few weeks of rehearsals when Broadway went dark after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Fortunately, the show is premiering with the same cast and creative team who initially came together to bring Greenberg's play to life and that dedication to both the material and live theater is felt throughout.
The production team's minimalistic approach to set design smartly serves to elevate and highlight the strong performances of Take Me Out, acknowledging that this is the kind of play whose success and engagement hinges on sharp, nuanced relationships and emotions between the eight racially diverse cast members. It's also an acknowledgement emphasized by director Scott Ellis, who understands that the sanctity of what happens inside a men's locker room is similar to the sanctity of what happens inside a Broadway theater. Despite a combined second and third act that feels slightly drawn out, it's hard to feel tired or bored when we're watching intense conversations between characters with believable rapports and conflicts.
Much of that is due to Williams (already well-known for his stand-out charisma and talent thanks to spending 12 years as Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey's Anatomy) and his ability to fully embrace and sell the charming, cocky personality that makes Lemming simultaneously adored and hated. Ferguson and Adams — two definitive sides and voices of Lemming's narrative — each turn in highly charged performances, through Ferguson admittedly commands the stage with a confidence so dazzling that sometimes he even upstages himself with his performance.
Playing the tortured, misunderstood pitcher Mungitt, Oberholtzer more than holds his own against Hollywood powerhouses, and he gets his own chance to shine during the third act. But while it would be easy to say that the reason the show works is due to its star-studded cast (which is composed of Broadway veterans, Tony Award winners, film actors, and network drama stars), it's impossible to watch Take Me Out and forget why we feel so engaged. We can, unfortunately, all relate in some way to its themes of homophobia, racism, class divide, and sport-related masculinity.
Maybe coming to terms with that will make us feel uncomfortable — as uncomfortable as some might feel watching scenes where members of the cast appear nude for long periods of time during emotional and intense conversations. But if the point of Take Me Out is to make us uncomfortable — to make us think, to force us to feel, to allow us to acknowledge our privilege and our emotions and our relationship with those close to us and with ourselves — then it's more than done its job. In fact, it's hit a home run. A
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