Jesse Tyler Ferguson tips his cap to 'Take Me Out'

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Jesse Tyler Ferguson tips his cap to 'Take Me Out'
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, center, who played Mason Marzac, a business manager for a player portrayed by Jesse Williams, second from left, and other cast at the final curtain for “Take Me Out,” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in New York, Feb. 5, 2023. A sold-out show capped a 15-week return by Ferguson to the role that won him a Tony Award last spring, for best featured actor in a play. (George Etheredge/The New York Times)

by Sarah Bahr

NEW YORK, NY.- At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Sunday night, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, standing in front of the black outline of a baseball stadium silhouetted against a pink, orange and yellow sky, closed his eyes, inhaling deeply as the lights went dark.

“Right before that moment, I was like, ‘If I say these last words, it’s really over,’” Ferguson said later, after returning to his fifth-floor dressing room after his final performance in the Tony Award-winning revival of Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play, “Take Me Out.” “And that hit me hard. I was just trying to hold it together.”

The sold-out show capped a 15-week return by Ferguson to the role that won him a Tony Award last spring, for best featured actor in a play.

“It’s definitely the most personal role of my career,” said Ferguson, 47, who played Mason Marzac, a fanboy business manager for a player (Jesse Williams) who comes out as gay. “It’s a role that meant something to me before I started learning it myself.”

The revival, which was originally slated to debut in the spring of 2020, finally opened in April at the Helen Hayes Theater and ran through June 11. It received near-universal acclaim from critics and won two of the four Tonys for which it was nominated (it also took home best revival of a play).

After the initial run, produced by Second Stage Theater, producers Barry and Fran Weissler announced in August that they would bring it back for a limited encore at the Schoenfeld starting in October, with most of the original cast of the revival — giving Ferguson his first chance to walk onto a Broadway stage as a Tony winner.

“We just felt like there was unfinished business with this play,” Ferguson said in a conversation in the Blue Room at the Civilian Hotel before his final performance, surrounded by Broadway memorabilia such as a pair of women’s Emerald City boots from “Wicked.”

Although Ferguson is best known for playing high-strung lawyer Mitchell Pritchett on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” he was a regular on New York’s off-Broadway stages before turning to the small screen.

“I just love the intimacy of an audience,” he said. “I love being in a room and whatever happens, happens that day, and it’s just for these people.”

In conversations before his final performance and then after the curtain call — life-size cutouts of the show’s cast lined the stairwell up to his dressing room — Ferguson discussed the role’s personal meaning, how the show changed his relationship with baseball and what’s next for him. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.

Q: How are you feeling?

A: I’m having a lot of heartbreak right now, being done. And Mason is not — he’s the opposite of heartbreak, his heart’s been cracked open. So, I was fighting against this thing happening inside me, with what my character needs. In a few hours, I’m probably going to have a really good cry about this.

Q: How did you first become involved with “Take Me Out?”

A: I was approached almost 3 1/2 years ago. I was getting ready to do my last season of “Modern Family,” and it worked out that I was going to go right from that into this show.

Q: What appealed to you about it?

A: I saw this play 20 years ago, and Denis O’Hare, who originally played the part, was so wonderful and spectacular in it, and that performance reinforced my desire to be a theater actor. So, to take the reins 20 years later and get to try my own version of this guy is really meaningful and special.

Q: How has your performance changed in the encore run?

A: When we all came back, the performances were so much richer and deeper. I’ve never peeled back the onion this far with a character, and it’s just because of the luxury of all this time we’ve had.

Q: Did you play or watch baseball growing up?

A: No, though I certainly appreciate it more from working on this. It’s an infectious thing, and I’ve fallen in love with it in a way I never anticipated.

Q: Your character’s sudden baseball fandom is largely a means of redirecting an impossible crush. What is a time you’ve similarly become obsessively devoted to something?

A: I’ve felt that way about theater, certainly. I sometimes use that as a replacement when I’m doing a show. I think about being on the stage at the Delacorte Theater, and I can replace that with being on a field by myself and looking at all these empty seats.

Q: It’s hard to believe this play was written more than 20 years ago. Are you surprised it’s still so relevant?

A: It’s heartbreaking that it feels so relevant. We all kind of assumed that this play was going to feel like a relic after a while because it was like, “Oh, 20 years from now, that’s not going to be a thing, and people are going to be very open about who they are in professional sports.” And we haven’t gotten there yet. So few professional athletes have come out of the closet.

Q: Because the play has nude scenes, audience members were required to lock their phones in pouches during the performance. Have you noticed that people are more attentive?

A: I do notice that, in the second act, they’re immediately with us because they haven’t been spending 15 minutes scrolling through Instagram. They’ve spent that time discussing the play with the people they’ve come with and just staying in the moment. I wish more theaters would do this.

Q: You are one of the few cast members who remain clothed in “Take Me Out.” But have you ever been naked onstage?

A: When I was 21 or 22, I did a production of “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” which is a Paul Rudnick play. It was terrifying, and the internet wasn’t what it is now and social media didn’t exist. I really look up to these guys who are doing this. It takes a lot of bravery. There’s three actors in this show who don’t have to get naked and we’re all looking at one another like, “Oh, we can have carbs!”

Q: What have you learned about yourself through this role?

A: My last few times on Broadway, I played a kid in a spelling bee, or I did this quirky one-man show about reservations. I just never thought of myself as an actor who had the ability to take on a part as meaty as this.

Q: You recently became a father to your second son, Sullivan, in November. And your oldest, Beckett, is 2. How are you sleeping?

A: My kids are in Los Angeles right now. So, I’ve been going back and forth to see them in LA, which has been a series of red-eyes to get back in time for the Tuesday-night shows. And that’s been taxing. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support of my husband.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m in “Cocaine Bear,” which is my first studio film. I saw a screening of it a few weeks ago, and it’s absolutely bonkers. I’m so excited to see it with a big audience. And they’re talking about doing “Take Me Out” as a miniseries or an ongoing series, so we’ll see if that gets any traction.

Q: OK, before I let you go get some food, let’s do a quick round of confirm or deny.

A: OK!

Q: You know all the lyrics to “Miss Saigon.”

A: All the lyrics? There was a time when I did. I don’t know if I still have it in my head. So, what is that, a confirm and a deny?

Q: “Shake It Off” is the best Taylor Swift song.

A: No, though I love “Shake It Off.” My favorite changes daily, but I’m currently obsessed with “Champagne Problems.”

Q: If your options to save your life were to either hit a major league fastball or fight off a cocaine bear, you would ...

A: I don’t think I’d survive either. But because I have been mauled by a cocaine bear, I’m going to have to try the baseball.

Q: You own a pair of dad shoes, aka white New Balance sneakers.

A: [Sighs.] Yes, I can confirm that.

Q: New York is basically Los Angeles now.

A: Deny. There are a lot more juice bars, but beyond that, I don’t think so.

Q: If you could guest star on either “The White Lotus,” “Schmigadoon!,” “Yellowjackets” or “The Gilded Age,” you would choose ...

A: Oh, shoot! [Thinks for a minute.] “Schmigadoon!”

Q: You can also throw in a wild card if you want.

A: “Severance!” Something dark or different — I need to crawl out under the rock of Mitchell Pritchett and surprise people.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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