By Marilyn Lester . . .

There’s a lot of merit and hidden treasure to be discovered in this revival of Richard Greenberg’s 2002 Tony-winning Best Play, Take Me Out. It’s a beautifully written and constructed piece of theater, and the many themes it tackles—homophobia, racism, masculinity, motivation, celebrity, insecurity, love, gratitude and more—offer universal truths as relevant today as when first produced. And then there’s baseball, a game that’s always represented more than sport. In that, Greenberg is an eloquent demystifier of America’s national pastime. In this production of Take Me Out for the Second Stage Company, director Scott Ellis and a stellar cast have hit a grand slam out of the park.

In 1999, Greenberg became completely wrapped up in the New York Yankee’s amazing 114-game winning season. In the same year, after retiring from major league ball, outfielder Billy Bean, who played for the Tigers, Dodgers, and Padres came out. These are the events that inspired Take Me Out. It begins with Greenberg’s bi-racial Darren Lemming, the charismatic star player of the World Series-leading super-team, the Empires (read NY Yankees) suddenly announcing he is gay during the season’s midterm. Shock waves reverberate through the team’s locker room and beyond, setting in motion the events that unspool with a great deal of reactive emotion.

From light comedy, the action spins from awkward jest into various degrees of drama, with mounting tension. As Lemming, Jesse Williams is pitch perfect in delivering nuance, anchored in a center of unwavering arrogance. This haughtiness is, though, only a byproduct of celebrity. In the core of Lemming there is much more, and Williams is brilliant in his effort to keep the inner man, with all of his secrets and torments, in control. There’s not a moment that he’s not intensely centered in his character, the internal struggles etched in his every expression.

The principal storyteller of Take Me Out is team intellectual and philosopher, Kippy Sunderstrom, played by an authentic-to-a-fault Patrick J. Adams. Kippy delivers the play-by-play of events unfolding as he sees and interprets them, cannily building the tension of the story arc through its two acts (this version of Take Me Out was trimmed to two acts from the original three). But it’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Mason Marzac that’s the everyman of Take Me Out and whose narration is utterly sublime. He’s a third-string financial wonk, a repressed and kind of schlumpy business manager that takes over Lemming’s accounts when his primary manager suddenly quits. Dubbed “Mars” by Lemming, these two outcasts eventually bond in ways subtle and ultimately wondrous.

Through Mars’ eyes, the wonder of baseball is aroused and explained eloquently. “I have been watching baseball nonstop since the day I was told you were coming to me,” he enthuses. “And at first it was a chore. I understood nothing. I couldn’t tell one player from another. And then I could. And it wasn’t a chore any longer, it was … this … astonishment!  This … abundance!” Another soliloquy on why baseball is greater than democracy is a masterwork of written and interpretive expression. Much has been written about baseball being religion and as a metaphor for life, and via Ferguson, with his ability to totally inhabit his character, the results are pure poetry. He also mines the comic relief given to Mars’ character with expert timing and great finesse.

The fulcrum of Take Me Out centers on the arrival of pitching machine Shane Mungitt, played by a brilliantly raw Michael Oberholtzer. Mungitt, from the deep South, is an enigmatic and seemingly intellectually challenged player brought up from the minor leagues when the Empires suffer a slump. Here Greenberg moves into the territory of the ineffable. A series of events, only connected at the end of the play by Kippy, leads to a tragic death with Mungitt at the center. But Greenberg smartly refrains from drawing conclusions about cause and effect. Such is life—loose ends are mostly not tied up so neatly. 

As an ensemble piece, the other actors of Take Me Out are impeccable. Non-English speaking characters, Takeshi Kawabatta (Julian Cihi), Martinez (Hiram Delgado) and Rodriquez (Eduardo Ramos) are salted in the mix underscoring the shadings of what represents communication. This is a supposition also supported in the body language of the shower scenes. In their nakedness, all team members are tasked by Greenberg to convey a wealth of feeling and emotion beyond words, having been shaken out of the normalcy of macho locker room intimacy by Lemming’s revelation. Carl Lundstedt as Toddy Koovitz and Tyler Lansing Weaks as Jason Chenier are minor players who thus have a lot to say. Likewise, Ken Marks as team manager, Skipper and Brandon J. Dirden as Davey Battle are key in driving the action forward. It’s Battle, in particular, as a player for the rival Larks and close friend of Lemming, who in two short scenes originates the key actions that have dire consequences.

More than the sum of its parts, Take Me Out is a paean for those who love baseball. For those who could even care less, Greenberg has crafted a work of theatrical art in its character studies and commentary on the human condition. There are no foul balls in this production. A remarkable cast with team leadership in the fine direction of Scott Ellis keeps the home runs coming at a thrilling pace.

Also contributing to the success of Take Me Out are David Rockwell (scenic design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design), Bray Poor (sound design) and Linda Cho (costume Design).

Take Me Out has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission and plays thru June 11 at the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY. For more information and tickets, visit https://2st.com/

Photos: Joan Marcus