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How Do You Play a Sympathetic Bigot?

Date: Nov 08, 2022


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Michael Oberholtzer talks about his Tony-nominated turn as a prejudiced baseball pitcher in Take Me Out


"I think people are coming to see Take Me Out on Broadway for a number of reasons—the least of which probably is Michael Oberholtzer," says Michael Oberholtzer with a laugh. Admittedly, the encore run of the 2022 Tony Award winner for best play revival has been attracting attention and audiences with its marquee stars, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jesse Williams, as well as its full-frontal male nudity. But fans of Richard Greenberg's 2003 play, which centers on a beloved biracial Major League Baseball player (Williams) who comes out and causes a stir, know the story hinges on Oberholtzer's volatile character Shane Mungitt, a relief pitcher with a lot of prejudices who's brought in to end a losing streak.

Although Oberholtzer is no newcomer—his many credits include Hand to God on Broadway and a recurring role on the TV series Sneaky Pete—not being as famous as his costars serves him well in this complicated role. Yes, Mungitt is a bigot who casually drops racist and homophobic slurs. But it's hard to see him solely as a villain when his devastating upbringing comes to light. This is a guy who has nothing going for him except baseball, and it's easy to understand why Oberholtzer's uncomfortably sympathetic performance was honored with a Tony nomination.

"I hope I leave the audience with some feelings," says Oberholtzer. "It's so satisfying to talk to people after the show who are very conflicted about what they saw and my character."

So, how does the actor tap into the complicated mind of Mungitt, a baseballer of confusion and rage? He started with Greenberg's script, which gives the laconic Mungitt a Deep South dialect. That gave him a blueprint. "It's incredibly helpful to an actor, knowing how to put sounds into your mouth," Oberholtzer says, adding that the character is akin to "an abandoned, neglected, wounded animal whose life is being flushed down the toilet. I don't know if that's being empathetic or sympathetic, but it's the way I understand."


Michael Oberholtzer, Bill Heck and Jesse Williams in
Michael Oberholtzer, Bill Heck and Jesse Williams in 'Take Me Out;' photo by Jeremy Daniel


He also credits his costars with helping him succeed in the challenging role. Although Mungitt is an outsider on the team, Oberholtzer says the company is very close. They've certainly had a lot of time to build relationships: They started rehearsals for the Second Stage Theater production in early 2020 but were derailed by the pandemic. The show finally opened in spring 2022, ran for three sold-out months, won two Tony Awards and now it's back for a 14-week engagement in a larger house, Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Bonding with his castmates has helped him home in on Mungitt's soft side. "I feel much more able to be vulnerable because I know these men and I have grown to care about them," he says. "And I know that they feel the same way about me."

Linda Cho's costumes were also part of his creative process, which continues to this day. "You are always developing it," he says about finding the character. "It becomes like a jacket that you love, and you just keep wearing it. And the more you wear it, the more you love it." Pulling up his (literal) pants and boots helped him with Mungitt's physicality, which was incredibly important since he's a character of few words. "You put this stuff on and you start to move a different way," Oberholtzer says. "He's an athlete, he's a pitcher. So, there's a certain bravado."

Not everything the actor tried was a home run. Oberholtzer threw a lot of ideas at director Scott Ellis and not everything stuck. For example, he suggested that Mungitt have a hairstyle like baseball player Bryce Harper's 'do: buzzed on the sides with a tail in the back. But that look is in right now, and Mungitt is decidedly unhip. "Instead of fighting for it, I said, 'Okay,' and we went back to the drawing board," he says. "I wasn't too precious about anything, and over time, we made a really great composite of what I hope to be a pretty dimensional and believable human being on stage." Considering his accolades and Tony nod, Oberholtzer is clearly batting a thousand.


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Take Me OutGo here to browse all theatre, dance and music offers.

Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Michael Oberholtzer.

tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.