Second Stage Theater recently installed Lynn Nottage’s lovely “Clyde’s” in this room, so with “Take Me Out” as a follow-up, the company is up and running. In the wake of Hayes’ acquisition several years ago – and why “Helen” has been deleted from the building’s name, by the sky – Second Stage, which also operates two off-Broadway venues, has significantly increased the range of theater for discerning audiences.
“Take Me Out” is a double helix of intelligent storytelling: the bows of Williams’ Darren Lemming, the blasé, uber-arrogant anchor of the fictional empires, and Ferguson’s Mason Marzac, his newly assigned, socially incompetent business leader, intertwine as tales of parallel growth. Mason gains from Darren a deep understanding of the serious joys of baseball, and Darren eventually finds in Mason a gay ally who helps him revive his exhausted spirit.
With a clever, extra scenography by David Rockwell, Ellis’ production manages to evoke the baseball season of 2002, where “Take Me Out” takes place, without missing a step from 2022. This is partly due to the fact that even though two decades have passed, society does not seem to have moved so satisfactorily with time. Florida – apparently in search of a designation as our national theater for the absurd – has just passed legislation, which critics called the “Do not say gay” bill, for God’s sake.
Greenberg’s framework is a story that has emerged over the years in virtually every professional sport: athletes whose revelation of their homosexuality or gender reassignment gives rise to a spectrum of reactions, in and out of the locker room. The sacred “backstage” domain is portrayed in “Take Me Out” as a hypermasculine kingdom disturbed by its crown prince: The other Empire players are portrayed as confused, or worse, by Darren’s revelation, with the most extreme case of disgust shown by the team new closer, Shane Mungitt (a magnificent Michael Oberholtzer), an empty-headed backer with his own sad story.
Greenberg’s scholarly dialogue is conveyed through the character of Kippy Sunderstrom (Patrick J. Adams) – Empires’ shortstop and Darren’s closest teammate – as a compassionate account of events that blow up in everyone’s faces. The dynamics of the locker room after Darren’s public announcement also reveal the extent to which the other players feel that Darren has violated their sacred space. That exposure is most vividly dramatized in the shower scenes when the supposed threat of Darren’s sexuality against his naked teammates is made most eerie. (To protect actors from unauthorized cameras, theater-goers are required to keep their phones in movie theater pockets.)
Adams creates a uniquely dramatic touchstone: Like the well-meaning Kippy, who admires Darren’s athletic gifts and always eager for his affirmative friendship, the actor is a compelling emblem for the player who puts decency first. Like Darren, Williams perfectly embodies the effortless physical grace – and the relentless condescension – of the lavishly compensated player who is better at the game than anyone else, and never lets them forget it. Oberholtzer’s Shane is as compelling as the manifestation of pitifully uneducated prejudice that you may have to stifle your own dishonest impulse to see him punished. In well-defined expressions of support, Julian Cihi, Brandon J. Dirden and Carl Lundstedt all perform experts in memorable scenes.
The entertaining humane stitching to “Take Me Out” is divinely delivered by Ferguson, whose illumination of a new fan’s cerebral love for baseball’s elegant choreography could not be played better. With a mind-boggling abundance that serves as an ideal counterweight to Williams’ worldly exhaustion, Ferguson adds “Take Me Out” just the kind of life energy that Ellis and Greenberg are after. You can even imagine Ferguson contentedly up in the stands somewhere along the first baseline, with glowing eyes and grips on his hot dog and pennant.
Take me out, by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set, David Rockwell; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Bray Poor. With Eduardo Ramos, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Ken Marks, Hiram Delgado. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. At Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., New York. 2st.com. 212-541-4516.