It’s nearly 10 a.m. on a Friday and a charter bus carrying members of the cast and creative team of Second Stage Theater’s Take Me Out is weaving through midtown Manhattan traffic on its way to the Bronx. Inside the coach, a half-giddy, half-rowdy energy buzzes as casual exchanges — about family, press, social media — give the conversation nearly the same cadence of the fictional locker room they will bring to life on the Hayes Theater stage that very night.
Their fictional team is known as the Empires, a major league baseball club on their way to the world series who find themselves struggling to keep their eye on the ball after biracial Black star player Darren Lemming — Jesse Williams in his Broadway debut — publicly announces he’s gay. On this particular morning, the Take Me Out team isn’t quite headed to the world series. But inside the towering steel and concrete of Yankees Stadium, the cast — also led by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Patrick J. Adams — traverses through its halls, suites and seats, the parallels between the real game and the fictional one director Scott Ellis coaches night after night becoming clearer.
Between the cheering crowds, the performance anxiety and a daily schedule, sport is theater and theater is sport for those onstage and off. “I can watch TV or film and watch it 100 times, and it’s going to be the same thing. I can’t do anything to affect the proceedings. In the theater and this stadium, everybody has the potential to affect the outcome in real-time. I think that’s important — that we experience those very community events where you know that you’re consequential, where your participation is necessary.”
Among those parallels is also the reality of baseball as a long game — something the show’s cast and crew became unexpectedly familiar with. Take Me Out was in its first weeks of rehearsal when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting down Broadway for 18 months and pushing the show into spring 2022, where it officially opens on April 4. Despite that two-year delay, its cast and crew stuck together and stayed with the production.
“I learned a lot about loyalty from these guys,” says Carole Rothman, artistic director at Second Stage Theater. “Two years, everybody moves on, but they stayed and it’s probably one of the most moving things as a producer — that these guys stuck together. They’re a team. They play like a team. On stage, this is what you want people to do. They understand that sports and theater are the same thing.”
Around five years before Second Stage’s revival of Richard Greenberg’s play, which debuted on Broadway in 2003 and Ellis saw, the director realized that despite it being a period piece, it was still incredibly resonant. “I just remember I’m sitting there watching as a gay man and thinking, ‘Wow, this is incredible, the possibilities of what’s going to happen in the next 20 years,’” Ellis recalled. “Then when I started looking at it again, I realized there certainly has been change, but not as much as I would have thought. Even though there have been gay players — people have come out — no one really in baseball. Not at that level.”
That truth is at the center of the entire play — a public declaration of orientation yet to be had in real life, that sees Williams’ centerfielder unexpectedly at odds with his teammates. It’s a tenuous situation that boils over after Michael Oberholtzer’s Shane Mungitt, a white, straight rising star pitcher of few words, reveals in too many words during a post-game press interaction that he’s a casual bigot.
As Darren’s new business manager Mason Marzac (played by Ferguson) and the Empires — an amalgamation of Japanese, Dominican and white baseballers played by Julian Cihi, Hiram Delgado, Eduardo Ramos, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Carl Lundstedt and Ken Marks’ skipper — grapple with how his “coming out” has changed his image and their relationship to it, he fights to maintain a sense of normalcy in his public and private life while proving that the only thing that’s changed since his public admission is them.
Greenberg’s story is a constant balancing act — of settings, perspectives and emotions — similar to baseball as both an individual and team sport. Take Me Out is a story about how a single major league baseball player navigates a world that isn’t ready for him. It’s also a story about how that team’s identity and success is shaped by Darren, Shane and their seemingly inflexible perception of masculinity in America’s favorite pastime.
Off-stage, Ellis faced a similar balancing act while guiding his team to their Monday night opening, beginning with the casting. “I cast for a character and I cast for the room,” he explains. “I look at an actor and go, ‘OK, they’re right for the role. Are they going to be right for a room?’ I’m going to work with these people for quite a long time. Are they going to be a part of an environment that I’m going to feel good about and enjoy going to work with? Because it only takes one.”
Once cast, Ellis helped his team strike the right balance in their relationship to baseball. The director didn’t require actors experienced or knowledgeable in the game and says despite how much they might pretend to throw a ball or swing a bat on stage, it “had zero importance to me.”. Instead, it was about helping each actor meet the game where they needed to. “Do I feel they have an understanding of what I think this character has to have?” the director says. “That to me is what actors do.”
That doesn’t mean the Take Me Out helmer, who is a lover of the game himself, let his cast take the stage with no basic understanding of baseball. Before the pandemic hit, the show was two weeks into rehearsals, with the second focused on getting the show “up on its feet” rather quickly due to its multiple moving set pieces and other production design elements. (That includes an elaborate locker room and a communal shower with actual water, among its many locations at the stadium and beyond.)
But the week before the production team began to construct elements of the Empires’ universe, Ellis put his cast into a week of baseball training. “In the afternoon when they came back, we would sit around and talk about the play around a table,” he says. “I put them all in baseball camp because there had to be a language and understanding of the game. All of them had to find out and learn about baseball at whatever level they wanted to do to support the characters.”
“Everyone will come to this in a different way — there’s some who grew up on baseball, there were some who were semi-professional baseball players and others who said I don’t know about it,” he adds.
As the team makes their way through the Yankees stadium tour alongside Ellis — holding the 2009 world series ring in the SAP board room and, eventually, taking to the bullpen and the field to casually throw and hit a few balls — the actors reveal the degree to which they had to “come to this” play and their role.
In the elevator on the way up to the Delta Sky Suite, Delgado and Ramos excitedly speak almost in unison when asked whether they grew up on the game. “That was my life from 10 years old,” Ramos says, before launching into a memory that conjures up his father’s voice. “I was in fifth grade when Derek Jeter was a rookie and I still remember my dad being like, ‘Hey, Eddie, there’s a shortstop coming from the minor league. Derek Jeter. He’s very good. Very good.’”
By the time the tour arrives at the field, Ramos is hurriedly pulling on a pair of baseball cleats before dashing out of the home base dugout and running a lap around the stadium under the warm March sun.
Williams also knows baseball intimately, playing on travel teams with his brother through high school, the game, he says, a “connective tissue between me and my father.” This, among other experiences, allows him to speak to his character’s experiences with familiarity. It’s a connection he turns over throughout the day, but perhaps most sharply when he stops abruptly mid-walk to pull out his camera and snap a shot of a poster image featuring four players — only one Black — resting high on the lower level walls.
“It’s one thing to be something in your own skin but when you have to share a space — a collective space that rises and falls with your presence and performance; a juggler trying to be present with people, make connection — there’s always this wedge because you can’t be your whole self or you’re not sure that you can be your whole self with an individual or a group,” Williams says. “I can relate to that racially, certainly.”
For other stars, having little relationship to the game birthed a different kind of connection to it on stage, thanks in part to their own character’s journey. “He falls in love with the game just because he sees himself represented in it,” says Ferguson of his character Mason, a gay man whose love of the game begins after he becomes Darren’s business manager. “It’s sort of like a parallel because I find myself represented in theater. It’s something I love so much, so to have this game told through the lens of drama has just really connected me to baseball in a way that I wasn’t expecting.”
With Adams, whose character Kippy Sunderstorm not only serves as the Empires’ team glue but a literal voice at times for his teammates, a connection to the game manifests in the way he also cares for his cast, he tells THR, while he looks on at them from the Yankees dugout. “Kip is all about the team. He’s all about staying connected to everyone. So for me, the value of standing here in any place like this, it’s watching them,” he says. “Every day that we do this play, I get closer and closer to all these guys. I get to know them better. I get to be supported by them. I get to support them.”
That sense of togetherness is important, not only for Adam’s character and the portrayal of a winning team rocked by their own hang-ups but for getting through the show’s more technically tricky and narratively sensitive material together amid an ongoing pandemic.
“We talk about theater being a high-stakes game, but now, if one person goes down, the show may not happen,” Barclay Stiff, Take Me Out‘s production stage manager, tells THR. “There’s also several elements on stage that we have to keep them safe with on top of the COVID restrictions. The guys have been great, but safety’s a big thing.”
Part of the show’s more sensitive elements is nudity, a part of “locker room culture” that helps explore not only Darren’s development but the invisible and unspoken boundaries of masculinity set by his teammates. “You’re literally nude. You’re stripped down, you’re vulnerable in that sense, but if you’re gay, it doesn’t get more vulnerable,” Ellis tells THR.
When it came to this, the director took measures, including discussions among the cast about what to expect in order to feel safe in the situation. They also brought in a fight instructor, who helped choreograph one particularly intimate scene, which Ellis says they rehearsed “forever.” He also says they never went down to being nude before taking the actual stage with the actors instead working in bathing suits in rehearsals.
And in the house, phones go into Yondr pouches to avoid audience members recording the actors — a change that Rothman says has also meant audiences are more engaged and vested, once again, with one another and the show.
“We worked very hard, way before the nudity came in, on what was going on in this moment and what were the challenges,” Ellis says. “But what was important to me was that it felt truthful that these are still a bunch of guys — a team — in a locker room having a conversation and, are you able to follow that conversation? The audience might be looking at whatever they’re looking at but are they following what’s going on between these guys?”
Another element that required a more thoughtful approach springs from Greenberg’s depiction of the diversity of American baseball, with the Empires offering an onstage mix of language, culture, race, class and sexuality that doesn’t shy from the discrimination historically present in the game. Ellis concedes he can’t control how the audience responds, but when it comes to his cast, there were things that were understood stepping into the roles. For everything else, conversations to address the difficulty of some of the play’s contents.
“You get actors — smart actors — and people create a team, so to speak, where anything can be discussed,” he says. “There’s a safety in a sense.”