No gay playwright today celebrates gay culture more ironically and more enthusiastically than Douglas Carter Beane and he’s wickedly, hilariously at it again with THE CLOSET in its world premiere at the Williamstown Theater Festival. As he’s done with SHOWS FOR DAYS, LITTLE DOG LAUGHED and AS BEES IN HONEY DROWN, Beane explores the predicament of the gay man as social misfit. This time in THE CLOSET, inspired by the 2001 French film comedy, Beane turns his social telescope around - the straight man as loser pretending to be homosexual so he can be winner - to render a modern parable of affirming identity of self.
A woefully ordinary, middle-aged straight guy Martin O’Reilly (played with deadpan precision by Matthew Broderick) , divorced, broke and estranged from his teenage son, faces imminent firing from his dead-end job in a Catholic liturgical supply company’s warehouse in Scranton, PA. When the flamboyant homosexual Ronnie Wilde (an uber campy Brooks Ashmanskas) subleases a floor in Martin’s Victorian white-elephant of a house, he pretends to be Martin’s secret live-in lover so as to prevent Martin’s firing on discrimination. When “outed” by Ronnie, Martin reluctantly, then with feigned enthusiasm, goes along with the scheme. All hell breaks loose among Martin’s coworkers when an Italian bishop from the Vatican arrives on the scene to record a blessing of the liturgical supplies for the company website.
The reactions of Martin’s son, boss, and female coworkers provide delicious grist for Beane to explore the parameters of both historic bias and politically-correct tolerance. He leaves no stone of both conservative prejudice and liberal self- righteousness unturned. Everybody, including all stereotypes, get dissed. Assumptions are upended. Irony prevails. All the while, in an intricate, deftly constructed, six-scene, two act plot, Beanie’s dialogue bounces speedily from one zinger to the next zapping every aspect of gay pop culture from Sondheim musicals to Grindr hook-ups, and all matters of political import from minorities - “the 3M’s - Mexicans, Muslims and Moes “ (as in hoMOs) - to religions “everything is easier not being Catholic.”
Beane’s dialogue is so laugh-out-loud funny; it’s easy not to dwell with discomfort on how stereotyped the swishy Ronnie is. If Beane weren’t gay, he probably couldn’t get away with this parody, but that kind of thinking is exactly what Beane is lampooning. And so what if some of the one-liners land sitcomishly as if we’ve heard them before on Will & Grace? They all can’t be knee-slappers.
What’s more, we can see the whole plot after Martin comes out coming at us, we can see the hidden, inner true selves of the crazy lot before they can, but it’s so much fun it doesn’t matter. Martin’s co-worker, Patricia Pennebarry (played with amusing, school-marmish neurosis by Jessica Hecht) carries a secret torch for the beleaguered Martin. Asian office administrator Brenda Mishima (a zany Ann Harada) is all too eager to convert from bitchy office gossip to faghag Martin fan when socially expedient. Company owner African American Roland (a difficult role nicely maneuvered by Will Cobbs) spends way too much time proclaiming “no homo” (Yes, Beane goes there when it comes to White guys’ stereotype of the Black stud, contrasting in one uproarious dialogue the expressions “princess tiny meat” and “massive johnson”.) Martin’s selfish, baseball jock of a son (the young, very talented Ben Ahlers) thinks gay Dad is way cooler than straight Dad and has an uncharacteristic emotional vocational calling.
Under Mark Brokaw’s sprightly direction, Beane’s inspired gags get full comic expression. Brooks Ashmanskas, when introducing his character by full name, Ronnie Wilde, brilliantly morphs into a riff of Marilyn Monroe strumming the ukulele and singing Running Wild in Some Like It Hot. Hecht and Broderick steal the show in a perfectly timed and physically executed scene of clumsy seduction that involves bubble wrap. Yes, bubble wrap.
In the end, hilarity gives way to sweetly serious notes that I won’t reveal here. Suffice to say, after all of the outlandish humor and brazen behavior, Martin and friends bear witness to the blessed adage to thine own self be true. Hypocrisy doesn’t play. Amen.
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