“Give the people what they want and they will come out for it.”
The original subject of that quote is usually cited as the funeral of a Hollywood movie mogul; either L.B. Mayer or Harry Cohn, depending upon who you believe. Regardless of the original context, there is truth in it. I have seen Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play, Take Me Out twice. The first time was almost a decade ago at The Performance Network in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I saw it again last weekend at Phoenix’s Nearly Naked Theatre. On both occasions the audiences were mostly gay men. ‘The gays’ always turn out for this play.
Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist about the political incorrectness of that comment, keep in mind, I’ve seen the play twice. The subject guarantees a strong appeal to the community of “nature’s bachelors”, a community of which I am a proud member. The fact that the play is set in a locker room where attractive actors playing professional athletes occasionally shower in full view of the audience does not hurt ticket sales among that demographic either. I’m not suggesting that isn’t reason enough to buy a ticket but there is more going on here than just wet hunks.
Darren Lemming, the mixed-race, superstar center-fielder for the World Champion Empires, a thinly veiled proxy for the New York Yankees, comes out of the closet during a press conference at the peak of his career. His motivation for doing so at that moment is obscure but his naiveté is not. Darren comes from a loving and stable home. Because he is rich, famous, successful and attractive, he thinks the revelation will have little effect on him. From his point of view, as the god-like center of the universe, this is now settled so he can get back to what he cares about; playing baseball. Surprisingly, in many ways, he is correct. Most of the fallout of his coming out accrues to those around him, not to him personally. His coming out is the catalyst for changes in the lives of others. These take a toll on him but indirectly, and in ways that neither he nor the audience could have foreseen.
The play premiered in London in 2002 before moving to an off-Broadway venue later that year. It opened on Broadway in 2003 and won the Tony Award for Best Play that season. The director of the local production said this is one of his favorite plays. I would not go that far but there is certainly more to this play than towel-snapping shower scenes.
I like that, while it is certainly a coming out story, it speaks to issues beyond the evils of homophobia into the broader context of racism and xenophobia. Particularly in these political times, that hating people based on their sexual orientation is no different than hating people based on race or ethnicity is a point worth making.
I like that the direct consequences of Darren’s revelation are mundane. He isn’t fired, beaten, or murdered. His family doesn’t abandon him. The fans don’t abandon him. His career doesn’t fall into decline leading inevitably to suicide. No; people, even well-intentioned people, treat him differently. Some are uncomfortable. Some feel compassion for him, something that is completely foreign to his experience. He struggles to come to terms with the changes in the way he is seen by others.
The consequences to some of those around him are dramatic however. I can’t describe the ways in which this is true without spoilers but there are those who are empowered by their own experience of Darren’s coming out. Others are destroyed by it.
The biggest weakness of the play is that it tells the audience how to feel rather than letting them discover it. The message is pretty ‘broad-brush’ to begin with and, just in case you don’t get it, there is a narrator there to tell you exactly how you should feel about everything you are seeing. He doesn’t quite hit you over the head with it… but there are baseball bats and wet towels standing by should anyone fail to get the message. This play does not suffer from subtlety.
A lesser weakness in the play rests in its lack of universality. Darren is unique. He’s a mixed-race man in 21st-century America who has never confronted racism. He is a gay man who has, apparently, never confronted homophobia. He choses to come out simply because he decides questions about his personal life are a distraction from what he cares about, baseball. There isn’t much about Darren’s coming out experience that is transferable to lesser mortals.
The play has a large cast but most of the characters are fairly two-dimensional. “Kippy”, Darren’s friend and the play’s narrator, Mason, Darren’s business manager, and Davey, Darren’s friend and competitor are well developed. Even “Shane”, a pivotal player in the plot, is more caricature than character. And it is telling that he is as much a victim as a villain.
Darren is not a bad guy but he is self-centered and oblivious. Many would cast the coming out of a high-profile athlete as an act of bravery. But heroism requires one confront risks or fears and overcome them. We don’t see that here. Ultimately what we see are the people reacting to change that makes them uncomfortable and for which they don’t have the skills to cope.