On Stage: “Take Me Out”

Friday night, I took a trip off-Broadway.  Way off-Broadway.  Off Manhattan.  With two friends in tow, I traveled to Brooklyn for a great play that I’ve read but never seen: Richard Greenburg’s Take Me Out.  The play asks a simple question that has often been asked but not yet answered: what would happen if a professional athlete–an active player, even a superstar–came out of the closet?

Greenburg did due diligence in presenting all the possible reactions among both fans (from befuddled life-long loyalists to suddenly smitten newcomers) and teammates (some now bashful in the confines of a communal shower, others tripping over themselves to demonstrate their acceptance).  These responses all have many layers to them and are written well by Greenburg; but when it comes to presenting the voice of the ignorant and hateful, his portrait of bigotry is so base and cliché that it invites a two-dimensional interpretation, a trap that this otherwise outstanding production unfortunately fell into.

Narrated by mild-mannered everyman shortstop Kippy Sunderstrom, Take Me Out‘s focus is Darren Lemming, a baseball god among men who seems invincible, and truly believes it.  Darren doesn’t believe announcing his sexuality will make any difference to anyone, and that might have been the case had his team stayed in first place.  But a flagging record invites blame and leads to a new addition to the team: AA pitching phenom Shane Mungitt, who turns out to be one white hood shy of founding his own chapter of the Klan.  The relationships between these three men wind up being more complex than anticipated, and it’s those surprises that keep an otherwise slow third act crackling and moving.

The other thing that holds your attention when it may otherwise wane is the character of Mason Marzac, Darren’s new accountant, who is as out of place in a sports bar as he is in a gay bar.  Making Oscar Felix look well-adjusted, Mason is a skittish bundle of neuroses; but once he discovers the liberation of baseball, he’s a new person.  If the players and managers of Take Me Out invite or embrace cynicism, Mason reminds both the audience and any of the characters who will listen why baseball is just so magical.  He has a great monologue about being a fan that is one of my favorite parts of the play.

Wagner as Mason and Chukwu as Darren

Another of my favorite things is Darren’s character.  I think Greenburg wrote this fictional trailblazer perfectly.  It’s more than likely that for a real-life player of that caliber, sexuality would be a distant second to baseball.  Darren doesn’t want commendation.  He doesn’t want to be the poster boy for the gay community.  He’s content being the poster boy of the New York Empires, and he takes no threat to that status lightly.  He’s a superstar–first, foremost, and always.  And that’s an important distinction to make because even though bad things happen to Darren in Take Me Out, they don’t happen because he’s gay.  They happen because he’s an asshole.

The Heights Players, operating out of a tiny black box theater in Brooklyn Heights, have done this play justice.  It is excellently staged and largely well-directed by Fabio Taliercio.  It features a number of great performances, including Ed Healy as the brassy manager, Mike Basile as a quintessential New Yorker on the Empires, and Seth Grugle as Kippy.  Ugo Chukwu makes for a solid Darren Lemming, but because of his smaller stature never truly appears larger than life, as the character should.  Consequently, Nathan Richard Wagner’s portrayal of Mason was sometimes a bit too over-the-top flamboyant, as if to compensate for the fact that Chukwu’s masculinity wasn’t constantly overflowing from the stage.  Yet in the important moments, he reigned it in.  The only fault among the cast is Craig Kelton Peterson as Shane, who offers no ambiguity or mystery to a character that certainly on paper seems to be one hell of a riddle.  His Shane is clearly the villain, and he takes the character’s simple-mindedness to be criminal-mindedness.  He’s not an uneducated fuck-up with some seriously inappropriate perspectives; he’s a sociopath itching to see just how far he can be pushed.

Chukwu (right), with Bryant Wingfield as Darren's sometimes friend, sometimes rival Davey Battle

But the true star of the show is the set, designed by Carl Tallent.  This ranks as some of the most efficient and expedient use of space I have ever seen in a theater of any size.  In little time and with little effort, the set changes from the Empires’ locker room to the field itself, to a New York nightclub, or to a police station.  The intimate size of the theater is not at all limiting and actually seemed preferable to a larger space.

The Heights Players have been around for some 54 years.  You can learn more about them here.  Unfortunately, Take Me Out has just wrapped its run.  Perhaps there’s a chance for a well-deserved revival later this year?

~ T

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