If Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is the sprawling canonical epic of the new gay theater, then Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, which is now being given a splendid production at the Ensemble Theatre under the direction of Jonathan Fox, may be its most important tragicomic sequel. The language, as in Angels, intoxicates, and the drama-also as in Angels-alternates between forceful conflict and delicious, fanciful repartee. The story begins simply enough, with the coming out of a famous athlete. Darren Lemming, wonderfully played by Jacques Cowart II, carries himself with an unapologetic arrogance that leaves little room for sympathy. As one of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars, Lemming is used to things coming easily, and for him, the idea that baseball might not be ready for a gay superstar seems beneath him. After all, he’s Darren Lemming, and everything he has ever done has been a success-why not this?
As Lemming’s closest friend on the team, Kippy Sunderstrom, Michael Polak handles a lot of the exposition and also turns out to be one of the play’s most enigmatic figures. He’s smarter than the average ballplayer, and able to understand and cope with Lemming’s attitude and ego, yet he can’t always be relied upon. Although there are plenty of rough patches for Lemming early on involving the prejudices of his teammates, such as the hard-headed Toddy Koovitz (Johnny Kostrey), things really start to get complicated when a hot young pitcher comes up from the minor leagues. As Shane Mungitt, the angry, possibly abused fastball thrower, Travis Johns is marvelous, all popping neck veins and unexpected invective.
Take Me Out has one of the largest casts of any show produced at Ensemble in recent years, and the range of performances makes for a rich experience, although the frequent use of nude scenes may not be everyone’s cup of tea. In contrast to the various ballplayers on the Empires, Lemming’s fictional major league team, there is his somewhat stereotypical but nevertheless endearing financial manager, Mason Marzac, played with great verve and comic timing by James Stellos. Mason, or “Mars” as Lemming nicknames him, has all the sympathetic vulnerability that the superstar lacks. His big monologue comparing baseball favorably with democracy is a tour de force, one of the great speeches in the history of American theater, and Stellos delivers it faultlessly. Other outstanding performances include Trey McCurley’s turn as Jason Chenier, Jarrod Crawford’s Davey Battle, and Wilson Smith’s brilliant take on the team’s manager, “Skipper.”