NEW YORK — Richard Greenberg’s I-heart-baseball play, “Take Me Out,” has returned to the field for another Broadway run, and it is as robustly entertaining as it proved to be when it debuted nearly 20 years ago — maybe even more so now.
Second Stage Theater recently mounted Lynn Nottage’s delightful “Clyde’s” in this space, so with “Take Me Out” as a follow-up, the company is on a roll. In the aftermath of acquiring the Hayes several years ago — and why “Helen” has been erased from the building name, heaven knows — Second Stage, which also operates two off-Broadway venues, has substantially beefed up the supply of theater for discerning audiences.
“Take Me Out” is a double helix of intelligent storytelling: the arcs of Williams’s Darren Lemming, the blasé, uber-arrogant anchor of the fictional Empires, and Ferguson’s Mason Marzac, his newly assigned, socially inept business manager, intertwine as tales of parallel growth. Mason gains from Darren a profound appreciation of the serious joys of baseball, and Darren ultimately finds in Mason a gay ally who helps him rekindle his jaded spirit.
With a slick, spare set design by David Rockwell, Ellis’s production manages to evoke the 2002 baseball season, during which “Take Me Out” occurs, without missing a 2022 step. That’s partly due to the fact that even though two decades have passed, society doesn’t seem to have moved all that satisfactorily with the times. Florida — seemingly in pursuit of a designation as our national theater of the absurd — has just enacted legislation that critics called the “Don’t say gay” bill, for goodness sakes.
Greenberg’s framework is a story that has cropped up over the years in virtually every professional sport: athletes whose disclosure of their homosexuality or gender transition occasions a spectrum of reactions, in and out of the locker room. That sacred “backstage” domain is rendered in “Take Me Out” as a hypermasculine kingdom disrupted by its crown prince: The other Empire players are portrayed as perplexed, or worse, by Darren’s revelation, with the most extreme case of revulsion exhibited by the team’s new closer, Shane Mungitt (a splendid Michael Oberholtzer), an empty-headed backwoods bigot with his own sad history.
Greenberg’s erudite dialogue is communicated through the character of Kippy Sunderstrom (Patrick J. Adams) — the Empires’ shortstop and Darren’s closest teammate — as a compassionate account of events that blow up in everyone’s faces. The locker-room dynamics after Darren’s public announcement reveal, too, the degree to which the other players feel that Darren has violated their sacred space. That exposure is dramatized most vividly in the shower scenes, when the supposed threat of Darren’s sexuality to his naked teammates is rendered most rawly. (To protect the actors from unauthorized cameras, theatergoers are required to stow their phones in theater-supplied pouches.)
Adams makes for an outstanding dramatic touchstone: As the well-meaning Kippy, admiring of Darren’s athletic gifts and ever-eager for his validating friendship, the actor is a persuasive emblem of the player who puts decency first. As Darren, Williams perfectly embodies the effortless physical grace — and the graceless condescension — of the lavishly compensated player who’s better at the game than everyone else, and never lets them forget it. Oberholtzer’s Shane is so convincing as the manifestation of pitiably unschooled prejudice that you may have to stifle your own ungenerous impulse to see him punished. In well-defined supporting turns, Julian Cihi, Brandon J. Dirden and Carl Lundstedt all perform expertly in memorable scenes.
The amusingly humane stitching for “Take Me Out” is provided divinely by Ferguson, whose illumination of a new fan’s cerebral affection for baseball’s elegant choreography could not be better played. With an impish exuberance that serves as an ideal counterbalance for Williams’s worldly exhaustion, Ferguson infuses “Take Me Out” with just the sort of life-of-the-party energy Ellis and Greenberg are after. You can even imagine Ferguson contentedly up in the stands somewhere along the first base line, eyes aglow, clutching his hot dog and his pennant.
Take Me Out, by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set, David Rockwell; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Bray Poor. With Eduardo Ramos, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Ken Marks, Hiram Delgado. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., New York. 2st.com. 212-541-4516.