The first thing that happens when you get to the Helen Hayes Theater to see Take Me Out is that the ushers put your phone in a Yondr pouch. It’s a familiar move from comedy shows — the sealed bag prevents the audience from recording jokes — but we’re there for a revival of a play from twenty years ago. It’s safe to say that Richard Greenberg’s best lines have leaked. The producers at Second Stage, however, are trying to prevent a different type of bad behavior. Take Me Out is about men who play baseball, and baseball is (after the game, at least) about men hitting the showers. The Yondrs are protecting the actors from being photographed naked onstage.
Which leads you immediately to the thought — why are they so naked? We can do wonders with frosted glass these days, but Take Me Out insists that the actors be as close to us as possible (almost on the downstage lip) and that nothing obscure their full-frontality. Greenberg’s deftly constructed play is full of dramaturgical distractions to keep us off balance, and the eye-catching choice should immediately raise your suspicions. Is this meant to be erotic? Even playfully so? No. Greenberg’s play is unsexy in its bones. Take out the soap-and-towel stuff, and you’re left with ideas that — give or take a few dozen slurs — you could take to church.
Jesse Williams plays the baseball player Darren, whose midseason decision to come out of the closet throws his team into confusion. Darren isn’t just a player; he’s the star of the Empires franchise, smooth and godlike, a one-man “emblem of racial harmony,” confident in his power. (If it were still 2002, we would recognize him immediately as Derek Jeter.) There are several narrators in Take Me Out — the slide from one to the other should make you question their reliability — and at first we get the story from Darren’s teammate and friend, Kippy (Patrick J. Adams). To build suspense, Kippy lets us know that something terrible has happened after Darren’s disclosure and that he’s not sure how to explain the whole mess. Yet, Kippy wonders, “how could a ‘mess’ have ever started with Darren? Who would you ever associate less with that word?” It’s crucial to Greenberg’s storytelling that Darren maintain this air of untouchability. Even when things — guilt, anger, pain — stick momentarily to him, they eventually lose their purchase.
Greenberg makes Kippy and Darren clever, literary guys (Kippy compares Darren to Billy Budd), but everyone else on the team is a dope or — and I don’t feel great about how this is deployed by the script — a non-English-speaker. Under Scott Ellis’s direction, the clownish characters go extremely silly and broad: the Spanish-speaking ballplayers in particular ask for easy (and ugly) laughs. Still, after some blushing and blustering in the clubhouse, most of Darren’s teammates acclimate to his sexuality. Some things in the god’s domain have changed: Darren’s unathletic new accountant, Mason (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), makes it clear that the athlete has become a gay icon, which Darren’s not wild about. But the bigger irritant is the Japanese pitcher Kawabata (Julian Cihi), who keeps choking in the ninth inning. The team brings up a yokel from the minor leagues, Shane (Michael Oberholtzer), to relieve him, and Shane’s gruesome, heartfelt (and English-language) bigotry finally shakes the team to its roots.
For all the talk about Darren’s gayness, Greenberg presents him to us almost as a neuter idol. Darren is sufficient unto himself, he says, but he’s been wrong before. He tells Mason that he has no friends even as we watch him exert a genius for friendship – instantly warm with Mason, fond with Kippy, and deeply involved with his oldest friend, Davey (Brandon J. Dirden), another superhuman ballplayer who also happens to fear God. These are all platonic friendships. The play ensures we see nothing romantic in any of these connections by giving the real love story to Mason, who falls hard for baseball. Starry-eyed, he’s seduced by its rulebook (more honest than democracy, he tells us, because it accounts for loss), besotted by every sensual aspect of the game. Ferguson as Mason breathes in the smell of the grass at the stadium, and his face transforms, blissing out, starting to shine.
He does a lovely job with the role, and Greenberg’s lyricism is at its strongest in his scenes, but he’s playing against a ghost runner. Anyone who saw Denis O’Hare in the part (he won a Tony for it) will hear his pinched tenor overlying Ferguson’s looser, sweeter tone. It’s a bravura role and Ferguson is simply not the bravura type — instead he’s a team player, a wonderful straight man, darling as a cinnamon danish. Unfortunately, the rhythms of the play do depend on Mason’s arias ratcheting us to a vertiginous height. Without that rollercoaster, it’s easier to hear the ways that Greenberg’s contemptuous, even condescending clubhouse stuff can sound not quite real.
Luckily, there is Dirden. He appears in only two scenes, rolling into them with a low-rider gait that establishes his dominance over the others — all such boys! — whom we’ve seen without their pants. Together, he and Williams turn their conversations into summits or operas or dances — something grander than the other, human-scale stuff we’ve been watching. Williams has ease and elegance onstage, as well as the ability to make tiny expressive changes comprehensible to an audience far away. But Dirden can do something even tougher. He can play big and seem delicate. His brow dips low, his eyes are in shadow, and yet you can feel him dominating the whole production, just with his gaze.
It is this outsize quality of Davey’s that made me wonder again about what the play knows. Characters are always shoving their way to the front to instruct us in something — Kippy thinks he’s talking about language and self-definition; Kawabata has some thoughts on winning; Mason hopes he can lead us to his new infield Jerusalem. All are mouthpieces for the frequently didactic Greenberg, so they probably do speak for the play. But Davey disturbs and complicates those lessons. Darren misunderstands Davey, fundamentally, thinking his friend is tolerant, and we misunderstand him too, thinking that he is a character like any other. Davey — connected by his name and fate to the Biblical David — is the figure who makes every other decision in the play have weight. A god, even one you don’t agree with morally, tends to do that.
So, with Davey’s Old Testament gaze in our minds, all that nakedness begins to make the audience think about the nature of looking. First we saw what seemed forbidden; then we grew casual about it; soon it seemed like nothing at all. That’s the applicable metaphor, right? Society progresses by “getting used” to things: Maybe, the thinking goes, if an audience can get used to male nudity, the mainstream straights can get used to … well … people like Darren. Yet Davey’s rumbling anger, and Darren’s confused reaction to it, throws those pillars of the neoliberal temple into disarray. There are forces that such a simple equation can not account for. I think the nudity in Take Me Out exists to remind us not to be too confident in our own enlightenment. Why do we look at these vulnerable men with such a hungry gaze? There are no gods, no referees, no umpires in life, yet someone must protect us from one another. I mean — why else would they need to lock our phones away? Yondr knows, we can’t be trusted.
Take Me Out is at the Helen Hayes Theater.