If the last week in our entertainments has shown us anything, it’s that even the most ordered, traditional of ceremonies can be disrupted by an unkind explosion of id, with ramifications splashing like crocodile tears on even the most unexpected of our heroes. Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play that charts the ramifications when a star baseball player comes out as gay, opens on Broadway tonight in a revival that has the perfect timing of a triple play.
With an impeccable cast headed by Jesse Williams, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Patrick J. Adams, Take Me Out just might be a revelation even to those who saw the original Broadway production nearly 20 years ago. My memory of the play is the sports-star-comes-out angle, a then-novel concept that over time has become, if not the commonplace, at least not unheard of.
What strikes me now about Greenberg’s gorgeously crafted tale are the various dominoes that tumble after the coming out, in particular how hate speech, in all its vile ignorance and cruelty, can ooze its way into the most unlikely places, slime attaching itself to those you’d never have guessed might be susceptible, pushing heroes to do unheroic things. No one, Greenberg seems to be telling us, walks away unscathed when bigotry and hate come calling.
A little background for those who weren’t reading the sports pages back when the 21st Century was brand new. Professional baseball player Billy Bean had just come out as gay after retiring from the sport, and noted in an interview that only a player with the stardom of, say, a Derek Jeter could possibly come out while still playing ball. Meanwhile, a player for the Atlanta Braves named John Rocker made headlines when he described New York City in vile racist and homophobic terms.
Greenberg, a late-in-life baseball convert, let those real-life images, along with his newfound obsession, swirl in his head to create Take Me Out.
The play opens with New York Empire ballplayer Kippy Sunderstrom addressing the audience, attempting to recount exactly when the “whole mess” started – and the seriousness with which he speaks lets us know quickly that the “mess” was not the coming out. Something bad, very bad, has happened to the Empires, and Greenberg takes his time before the reveal.
So, as Kippy does, let’s start at the beginning. One morning Darren Lemming (a very good Jesse Williams) said to himself “What the hell? I’m Darren Lemming and that’s a very good thing.” On a spur of the moment, Lemming – the Empire’s Jeter-like, mixed-race star of unrivaled talent – tells a gaggle of reporters that he is gay. This “one-man-emblem-of-racial-harmony” and “a Black man who you could imagine had never suffered,” as his pal Kippy puts it, has made a culture-shattering statement with the nonchalance that has gotten him through life convinced he is both invincible and untouchable.
And for a while, that invincibility maintains. There’s some childish locker room insults and some unexpected praise, but Lemming brushes both aside with the above-it-all poise of a man who knows he’s at the top of his game. Untouchable.
The curveball comes with the recruiting of Shane Mungitt (Michael Oberholtzer), a hotshot pitcher from the Ozarks whose uncouth demeanor and surly reticence piques the interest of his teammates. Mungitt’s story comes out in fits and starts – raised in orphanages, his parents gone in a murder-suicide, a vocabulary so limited he can only muster the indignant “that’s not nice” when faced with yet another of life’s insults.
The curiosity roused by this newcomer turns to stunned fury when, during a press conference of his own, he describes his new teammates with racist and homophobic epithets that truly stun. Mungitt’s playing days would seem to be numbered until he delivers a heartfelt, if poorly spelled, written apology that lays his rant on a lifetime of poverty, ignorance and emotional deprivation. “I didn’t know most’a’those words meant bad stuff, I just been hearin’ them all my life,” Shane writes. “The onliest thing I can do is throw — onliest thing I ever could do. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody an’ I accept full responsibility for my speakings. I should be punished.”
So Shane’s back on the team, though not to open arms. Lemming, who expresses his outrage to the team manager-father figure, is doubly hurt when the manager sides with the bigot, in more ways than one.
Even Lemming’s business manager, the starstruck new baseball convert Mason Marzac (a flawless Jesse Tyler Ferguson) encourages Lemming to dash his sudden interest in retirement to finish the season. Particularly important is tomorrow’s game, which pits Lemming against his lifelong friend, fellow superstar and genial rival Davey Battle (Brandon J. Dirden).
When an errant (maybe) pitch goes wrong, tragedy strikes, with Shane only the most obvious culprit. Greenberg essentially then unspools the chronology of the very bad day to show how more than one man behaved very badly, with each insult and cruelty fueling the next, making bullies and victims of everyone. Hate’s legacy.
Directed by Scott Ellis with an attention to pace and nuance that locates every thought of a thoughtful play, Take Me Out does nothing gratuitously, including the abundant full-frontal nudity of the locker room shower scenes. Here is the intellectual Kippy waxing mock-poetic about the aftermath of Lemming’s coming out, teasing his comrades while at the same time speaking a truth:
“We’ve lost a kind of paradise,” he says grandly. “We see that we are naked. And our refuge? We have none. We might want to assume a defensive hostility, an aggression. The danger there is, we become Shane Mungitt. So our anger, our maleness, is lost to us. We’re tight. We choke up on the bat. We play short flies on the bounce. We suck.”
Or recall, after Shane’s (seemingly) dishonest denial that Lemming was the target of the gay slur, that an earlier exchange involving another player just might indicate Shane isn’t lying at all. In this light, we realize that Shane’s roster of risible attributes probably doesn’t include dishonesty – even that faux apologetic letter isn’t really his to own up to. In a way, Shane is too utterly lacking in self-awareness to be anything other than what he appears – a revelation made clear in a harrowing scene, played to a fare-thee-well by Oberholtzer, when the full impact of his actions is made clear.
And so Take Me Out takes no prisoners in its unraveling of how one man’s hate casts an ugly shadow on everyone in its reach, a corrosive force that prompts even heroes to behave without heroism. In a stunning soliloquy that must surely have contributed to this play’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize nomination (and Tony Award win), the business manager-turned-baseball evangelist Mason delivers an extraordinary exegesis on the sport: Baseball, he says, is “better than Democracy” because 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! So that baseball achieves the tragic vision that Democracy evades….Democracy is lovely, but baseball’s more mature.”
When Ferguson delivers that speech, he captures the character of a gay man who has, to his utter surprise, discovered something of great value in a world that he’d spent his lifetime ignoring, something to fill a void, something to love for better or worse. Baseball, he will later concede, can be tragic, but what will we do till spring?
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