Scott Ellis Talks About the Broadway Gay-Themed Baseball Play 'Take Me Out'

With major league baseball now scheduled to reopen in a few weeks, it's as good a time as any to revisit one of the best plays on the subject. Richard Greenberg's 2003 play Take Me Out won many awards, including a Tony, Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel for its depiction of a baseball superstar who comes out of the closet, and it is now running on Broadway at New York's Second Stage Theater. Just a couple of weeks ago, director Scott Ellis thought Take Me Out might be the only game in town, but happily for all concerned, that is not the case and instead it is more of a companion piece to the national pastime.

Both Ellis and Greenberg are particularly happy for baseball's return because they are real fans. Ellis says that he became a baseball fan, at least in part, because he has worked with the Nederlander Organization, the Broadway producers who are part owners of the Yankees, and they would give him tickets. "So I got used to sitting behind the dugout. I love baseball, and I certainly dug much deeper into it when I knew I was doing the play, which I've been on board for many years.

"And then during the pandemic, I really went deep into watching Korean baseball actually, the only thing that was on. I don't think [my being a fan] has ever been as severe as Richard."

Greenberg has said that he became a fan while following the New York Yankees in 1998, during their historic 114-win season. It was a near-perfect season that featured a perfect game—by David Wells, coincidentally on May 17, the day of that year's AIDS walk. After that, he was part addict, part true believer and part evangelist.

Ellis told Newsweek that he is more low key: "I played it when I was a kid. But I have a twin brother who was always much better at sports than myself. So, I don't think I ever embraced as much. But then I started watching it when I went to school in Chicago, so I would watch him, and to [watch the Cubs] in Wrigley Field was such a blast."

The love of the game one of the big themes of Take Me Out. Baseball has always had the ability to bring people together, but every so often real life has a way of intruding. For all the beauty of a well-executed hit and run and the ceremony of a home run, there is also the off-the-field sniping, a hateful Twitter rant and an occasional work stoppage.

On one hand, Take Me Out is the story of Mason Marzac (aka Marz, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a gay financial adviser whose involvement in the core incident has led him, to fall in love with the game. He finds himself waxing rhapsodic on the beauties of the sport in ways only a newborn convert can.

It is also about Darren Lemming (played by Jesse Williams, best known for playing Dr. Avery on Grey's Anatomy, who making his Broadway debut), the gay superstar and a person of color who comes out the closet and the mayhem that results. In 2003, Lemming seemed to be a combination of Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr., two of the biggest names ever in the game. Lemming is not prepared for the hostility his decision causes. Like many athletes, he has, in some ways, led a life of privilege, a demigod in school and with a bump-up in title later on. Probably the first time in his life, he is facing backlash for actions other than maybe overthrowing a cutoff man or missing a take sign.

The play is also about people's unwillingness to accept each other. Ellis says that it's unfortunate that this theme of the play has not become dated. "[Take Me Out] holds up pretty well. Again, you can look at it as a positive or a negative. Things have not changed as much as one would hope. Still no major league baseball players have come out. Homophobia is front and center. So is racism."

Even after almost 20 years, which have seen many social changes, Greenberg did not have any major rewrites, Ellis said that "couple little sentences that have been changed but nothing to do with what we've all gone through in two years. It's just him as a writer saying, 'I've always wanted to explore that or to answer that.'

Not many shows about baseball have been successful. Damn Yankees, the musical, is probably the most famous. As for plays, a few of the best, are Jonathan Reynolds' "Yankees 3 Detroit 0, Bottom of the Seventh" had a nice run at the American Place Theater in 1975, Out! A play by Lawrence Kelly about the Black Sox scandal, which ran off Broadway in 1986, and Bleacher Bums by Joe Mantegna in 1977. Of these, only Out! has a social aspect.

What all these plays have in common is that bulk of the action takes place off the field. Even in real life, baseball at its best is more a game of the mind, and Greenberg captures that, especially in the character and some of the soliloquies of Marzack. In these, Greenberg's writing is at its most poetic.

On a practical matter, there is casting. As Yogi Berra might have said: Casting is 90 percent if the game, and if you get that right, you are halfway home. But in a play about athletes, what is the most important thing? Looking athletic may be important, but other things take priority. Perhaps the most problematic character is Shane Mungitt, Lemming's bête noire, who is played by Michael Oberholtzer.

For Ellis, range is a primary criterion: "Casting such a tricky thing. A good actor is a good actor, and they can play a lot of different things. So, actors surprise me all the time. For a particular role, you're believing someone coming in and saving horrible things: He's a racist. He's a homophobe. But he also is the opposite, saying, 'Well, this is what how I was brought up. I don't know any other way.' He is not the smartest kid on the block. So you have to find an actor who is able to bring that believability to the table and not just be a racist.

"Just play that. You know, they're all deep, complicated characters with flaws. There are plenty of people who believe this, and they've been brought up that way. You're taught to be a racist; you're taught to be homophobic. You're not born that way."

That said, while the characters may be complicated and the actors may be accomplished, not everyone is a ball player. So just to be safe, Ellis got them a little training. "When I went into rehearsals two years ago, I put all the actors in baseball camp for a week. Just so they can make sure they all understood, that they were all in a sense on the same playing field."

As it were...

Take Me Out has gotten a lot of things right. It is smart and very realistic, perhaps most notoriously for the abundance of male nudity (after all, there are a lot of locker room scenes, and you can only hold a towel up so long). But subject matter wise, the play really it holds up as well as it does is as much due to circumstances beyond anyone's control as it is to its solid, even elegant writing.

Stories on tribalism, homophobia, hate speech hate crimes lead the daily news feed, not to mention the Twittersphere. So it seems that, at least for the foreseeable future, the play is fated to be relevant. The characters are in many ways affected as much by outside forces as by their own actions. Mungitt is a witless antagonist, a victim of his own upbringing, and Lemming is an unwilling spokesman for a cause about which he is largely ambivalent.

What saves baseball are people like Marz. He is the heart of Take Me Out, and a reason for hope in the play—and beyond. He represents the fans who will return to the game in April, and every year, in spite of the distractions.

Take Me Out is now playing at the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44thStreet in New York. For tickets and more information go to 2st.com.

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"Take Me Out" is a play that, for better or worse, has not dated much in 19 years. From left, Patrick Adams, Jesse Williams and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the cast of Take Me out at the Hayes theater in New York 2022 Catherine Wessel