Typically drawn to projects that require him to “get filthy,” Bill Heck jokes that his current role in the Broadway revival of “Take Me Out” is the cleanest he’s ever been on stage, with the play’s best-known scenes taking place in a locker room shower.
Of course, the actor, whose television credits include “The Leftovers” and “The Old Man,” means that only in the literal sense. “There’s a melancholy to the play that I find really gorgeous and heartbreaking,” he told HuffPost. “My soul is a wreck every night.”
Written by Richard Greenberg and directed by Scott Ellis, “Take Me Out” follows the New York Empires, a fictional Major League Baseball team that falls into a slump after its sole biracial player, Darren Lemming (played by Jesse Williams), reveals to the public that he’s gay.
Heck, who last appeared on Broadway in the 2014 revival of “Cabaret,” stars as Kippy Sunderstrom, a player attempting to reinvigorate his team’s sense of camaraderie while maintaining his kinship with Lemming. Ellis suggested Heck for the role, having worked with him on two episodes of TNT’s “The Closer.” The actor stepped in after Patrick J. Adams, who played Kippy from April to June of this year, was unable to return when “Take Me Out” was remounted for a fall engagement in October.
As the play’s narrator, Kippy initiates intense discussions about the toxic masculinity, racism and homophobia embedded in America’s pastime.
“There’s something beautiful about the way he desires to live his life that I felt really connected to,” Heck said of the character. “What I love about him is his desire to be open to all the beauty, intricacies and nuances that life has to offer. He’s not afraid to experience joy, and to let that connect him to what’s happening in the world. But it also gets him into trouble a bit.”
And although “Take Me Out” premiered on Broadway in 2003, it feels especially urgent given the current pushback against LGBTQ rights in many conservative states, as well as the fact that Major League Baseball still hasn’t had an active player come out as gay.
“It’s a little unsettling how relevant it still is,” Heck said. “It felt like there was this period where progress was linear and we’d really figured some shit out as a society, and to suddenly have that arrested at the authoritative level is so startling. That feels connected to Darren’s personal journey in the play, where resistance is coming from unanticipated quarters, and the people he thought were safe betray him when they express their true feelings.”
The current production of “Take Me Out” has received near-universal praise from critics and received two Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play. As was the case in 2003, much of the buzz surrounding the show has emphasized its shower scenes, where the majority of the all-male cast appear completely naked.
Not all the attention to the shower scenes has been entirely welcome. Audiences are required to have their phones locked in sealed pouches during the performance, but theater staff reportedly installed infrared cameras to detect potential phone users after nude images of Williams from the show were leaked online earlier this year, to the dismay of some involved in the production.
Having previously gone full-frontal in an off-Broadway production of “Angels in America” more than a decade ago, Heck approached the “Take Me Out” scenes with a sense of humor.
“I still do my pushups off stage before I come on, but I just have fun with it instead of being nervous about it,” he said. “The most intimidating thing, I think, is making sure you have the proper business choreographed with washing and speaking. There is some strategy about what parts of you to wash that don’t distract from the dialogue.”
He went on to note, “By believing in how it served the play and wanting to honor that, I felt like it was doable.”
Once “Take Me Out” concludes its run in February, Heck will turn his attention back to the big and small screens. He recently wrapped a horror film called “Dust,” co-starring Sarah Paulson, which he describes as “so scary, ominous and upsetting in all the enjoyable ways.” Fans can also expect him to return for Season 2 of “The Old Man,” in which he plays the younger version of Jeff Bridges’ character, Dan Chase.
For now, Heck is content to keep going to bat alongside Williams and the rest of the Empires.
“Some projects are harder to sell than others, but I believe fully in this play, in this production,” he said. “It’s not only an important piece, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. It’s so satisfying to be there with audiences as they discover how funny it is, and also how moving it is. And I hope as many people are able to have that experience as possible.”
“Take Me Out” is now playing at New York’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.