It’s a more common path of logic than you might think.
A person from a marginalized group – based on race, sexual identity, gender identity, or another characteristic – believes they can escape the individual and systemic abuses facing said group by simply being “exceptional.” Maybe they’re smarter than everyone else, or they use more formal language. They have more money or possess a talent that makes interested parties more money. As long as they can prove themselves as “better,” they’ll be fine. They’ll be free. They’ll have agency.
In the Broadway play Take Me Out, Darren Lemming (Jesse Williams) is banking on that logic. Lemming, a star Black baseball player for the Empires, comes out to the world as gay. It’s 2002, five years after Ellen DeGeneres came out on the cover of Time and nearly two decades before Carl Nassib became the first openly gay active player in the NFL.
The harsh realities this context implies don’t phase Lemming. He insists to his teammate and close teammate Kippy Sunderstorm (Patrick J. Adams) that his superstar status shields him. When a fellow teammate voices homophobic concern, Lemming turns him into a laughingstock for the audience. He shrugs off getting a new business manager Mason (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who happens to be gay himself. He can handle microaggressions here and there because he has the power. He’s untouchable.
Or so he thinks.
Take Me Out, a revival of the 2003 Tony-winning play, has tons of fun sending up the culture that makes people like Lemming such a rarity in real life. There’s little that the book doesn’t mine for laughs: how men struggle with emotional connections, the latent homoeroticism of men’s sports in general, the stereotypes about gay men and sports, and even a sly joke about sexual positions that you might miss without the gasps and laughs from the people around you.
The jokes do more than invest you in this clubhouse and its colorful, messy characters. They help clarify the hypocrisies and outright hatred simmering beneath the surface of playful back slaps and cheering crowds. It’s a crucial juxtaposition for the inevitable scenes where the arrival of relief pitcher Shane Mungitt (Michael Oberholtzer) brings Lemming down to Earth. Lemming realizes how low on the totem pole he is and how little his paycheck means. It’s a damning one that sends him and the team spiraling.
Even amidst the heavy drama, the play finds ways to insert glimmers of comedy. You’ll be gripped by a tense, anxious confrontation, only to laugh in the middle of it. It’s an uneasy and very intentional feeling. Despite his best efforts, the world reduces Lemming to being Black and gay and punishes him. It’s as absurd as any joke in the play and a startling reality to this very day. (In the 20 years since the play premiered in London, there hasn’t been one active, openly gay MLB player.)
Take Me Out asks a lot of its cast, and yes, that’s considering the full-frontal nudity required. (The Hayes Theater does try to protect the actors’ privacy, despite some overzealous audience members.) Everyone meets the moment, not a weak link within the ensemble. Adams is a hilarious and thoughtful narrator, letting loose an adult version of the smarmy intelligence he deployed in Suits. Williams, essentially the lead, excellently carries Lemming’s bravado with slightly shaky confidence, especially as big and small forces chip away at it. When there’s nothing left and Lemming is laid emotionally bare, Williams is devastating.
Like Williams, Michael Oberholtzer carries much of the play’s emotional weight, especially in the third act. He nearly explodes off the stage in a tornado of toxicity, sadness, and confusion. It is shocking to behold and hard to look away from. In most cases, he would be Take Me Out’s undeniable standout. But then there’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Every second he’s on stage is pure delight, earning the biggest laughs while emanating the warmth the play needs to keep balanced. If he were on stage for only one act, he would deserve a Tony. Blessedly, he’s in all three, which means not giving the damned award is criminal.
It’s clichéd to describe Take Me Out as timely or relevant. It shouldn’t be, but here we are. More importantly, Take Me Out is a nuanced look at the “model minority” myth and how easily it crumbles under the slightest pressure. No one is immune, despite what some may tell themselves. The play’s brilliance also lies in how deeply it cuts into the phobias of sports and how it’s the most vulnerable who often bleed.