Yes, for those who remember 20-odd years ago, the locker room shower scenes and full-frontal, naked wet, male bodies are still present in the excellent revival of take me out (to June 29, Hayes Theater)—one scene of lightly cascading water and slickly glistening bodies seems benign, the other one very far from benign. Both scenes, indeed the whole play, put masculinity and its dark genies center stage—and, just in case you’re tempted, cell phones are locked away upon entry to the theater to prevent the taking of pictures.
It would be wrong to say that take me out is timely, but rather that the strange boomerang pace of LGBTQ equality and cultural evolution means that the play, which won a Best Play Tony award, is still relevant. Right now, blatant homophobia and transphobia is rampant thanks to the likes of Republican politicians like Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and many others propagating anti-LGBTQ hate online.
Last year, almost 20 years after take me out was first performed, Bryan Ruby made history as the first out gay professional baseball player, telling USA Today that he wanted “to help create a world where future generations of baseball players don’t have to sacrifice authenticity or who they really are to play the game they love.” He said, while hating being in the closet, he had been advised to do so. “The best way to describe the hiding as an athlete is like you’re running with a weighted vest on,” he said. “It’s on all day and you can’t take it off. I’ve been gradually taking that weight off.”
Just as there are over 300 anti-LGBTQ bills in Republican-run legislatures, there is also a growingly diverse set of portrayals of LGBTQ life on big and small screens. And yet there is still a vanishingly small number of out professional sportsmen playing at the highest levels.
take me out may have been written twenty years ago—when people were already buzzing about the possible comings-out of players in traditionally macho sporting strongholds—but it cleverly eschews the most conventional narratives about LGBTQ people in sport and public life more generally. Unlike the debate at the time, and the debate still today, the closet is barely mentioned, the oppression and responsibility athlete may feel is not the focus either, and nor is coming out.
“This play is really about masculinity—its fracture, fragility, and power—played out against the canvas of America’s most loved and mythologized sport.”
Instead, playwright Richard Greenberg looks at the effects of a baseball player’s coming out on his teammates in the Empires, who are on their way to the World Series. The coming out has already happened. The usual agonizing has been jettisoned. The gay baseball player is not alone, isolated, bullied, rejected. His path is not one towards empowerment and pride. Greenberg has a different stall to lay out.
The play does raise questions around race and sexuality, even if—like so much in take me out—they are asked at a slight angle. The title of the play takes on many meanings—light and dark—as the play evolves.
It is easy to sell take me out as “the gay baseball play.” Its central character is hot, and doing something admirable and historic. There are handsome bodies, naked and clothed in snug team uniforms. There is a player doing something historic. But this play is really about masculinity—its fracture, fragility, and power—played out against the canvas of America’s most loved and mythologized sport.
Darren Lemming (Jesse Williams) is the star player who has just come out; aloof to the point of rude, and superior to the point of being unattractively arrogant. He deliberately wrongfoots us. Patrick J. Adams as his best friend on the team, Kippy, is really the ideal straight person to have around you at a moment like this—supportive, sweet, supreme defender, and kind. But Darren is adamant that he wants normal service to continue as much as possible; he doesn’t need any helping hand, whatever the homophobia of the locker room which we see minor eruptions of.
Usually, we are programmed to support the gay hero in this context; applaud their bravery, and be ennobled by the lesson they may teach us. But Darren doesn’t want that. Kippy says Darren being biracial made him an even more accessible symbol of a dream. Yet Darren wants his team, us, to fear him, be intimidated by him, worship him as the god he is—beyond race and sexuality, beyond any categories.
He uses “f*****” as a locker room jocular insult himself. To suit the awed tones he is spoken about it in, he appears to us as more statue and icon than real human. He is at the heart of the play, and also oddly a spectator. He is talked about and to, and yet is a hero of few words. He also has a deep friendship with a rival player Davey Battle (Brandon J. Dirden), which becomes pivotal as the play continues.
David Rockwell’s design is simple; open space for general scenes, as well as a bucolic backdrop of a baseball diamond, in front of which alternately stands a locker room that becomes the row of showers. Adams is a wonderful narrator; a wisecracker with a heart of gold, and well-read and insightful too. Perhaps there are seers and intellectuals like him on every sports team who are really Pepys as they also wield a bat or throw a ball. Meaningfully present but underwritten are a Japanese player, played by Julian Cihi, and two Spanish-speaking players (Hiram Delgado and Eduardo Ramos).
The first half of the play is a kind of parade of soliloquies and monologues—never tiresome because of Greenberg’s writing, but static, when a play about baseball should have life and drama.
This finally comes via two standout performances. Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays Mason Marzac, Darren’s agent, a gay man who is more stay-at-home than partier, and—in his stuffy shirt and trousers—far from the testosterone-filled, sexy client. He takes great pride in taking Darren’s calls in his apartment block’s corridor when his hot gay neighbors are within listening distance.
Tyler Ferguson sketches both the comedy of a sudden baseball convert, full of newly unearthed sporting zeal, and also the genuine romantic who falls for the game of baseball rather than—in the hands of a lazy writer—the hunk whose money he is looking after . Mason could be played as a camp inadequate, but Ferguson delivers a far richer portrait of a man beholden to the healthiest kind of hero worship. He (and Kippy) vocalizes the mythology of baseball, the symbolic geography of the diamond and a game, and what it means. Mason doesn’t care about sports, indeed has been alienated from them—until now.
Then there is Michael Oberholtzer’s Shane Mungitt, a fantastic pitcher and awful human, whose casual homophobia and racism becomes a secondary cultural prism in the play. How can the Empires claim to support Darren while also figuring out a way to keep Shane on the team? Oberholtzer, right from the beginning, seems a lot more than the dumb hick his teammates believe him to be. Malign intent hides behind the aww-shucks deflections he deploys, and you know—triggered whenever he says anything—that violence is only a twitch away.
“When Shane truly explodes—after a sequence of events leads to a tragic death—we see his viciousness and his ignorance at their most terrifying and vivid”
The second shower scene brings his and Darren’s manhoods—in their most literal and symbolic senses—together right in front of us. Here again, the play reverses expectations of what a confrontation between gay man and bigot will be about. Its consequences are even more stranger, and yet believable.
Greenberg, as Kippy’s narration has made clear to this point throughout, is more interested in asking what lies within rather than batting averages. And so, in his most powerful speeches, Kippy asks Shane about his bigotry, about what the hell is wrong with him.
Again, to Greenberg’s credit, there are no Damascene conversions swathed in rainbow flags following the interrogation. Indeed, when Shane truly explodes—after a sequence of events leads to a tragic death—we see his viciousness and his ignorance at their most terrifying and vivid; and Oberholtzer deserves awards nominations for his furiously executed combustion of the ugliest of a person right before our eyes. The heart of bigotry, Greenberg shows, is a mixture of terrible things, maybe none of which can be disinfected and made right.
What Shane embodies is before us in the many and varied current attacks on the LGBTQ community, and trans youth in particular. It may even explain the paucity of out sports-people 20-plus years after take me out‘s debut. Yet finally, take me out also offers a vision of inclusion, of both finding a place, finding friendship, and finding a home. It comes with costs, but it’s there—a genuinely unexpected field of dreams.