The Closet is funny, brash, entertaining, and utterly forgettable.
The Closet by Douglas Carter Beane, inspired by Francis Veber’s film Le Placard. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Staged by the Williamstown Theatre Festival on its MainStage, Williamstown, MA, through July 14.
By Helen Epstein
If you like broad farce, big star turns, and slick Broadway production values, Williamstown Theatre Festival’s world premiere staging of The Closet is made for you. The script is an adaptation of the far subtler and more realistic 2001 comedy film Le Placard. That story was set in a bright, high-tech French condom factory outside Paris — ensuring lots of visual, verbal, and sociological riffs, including shots of its hero Francois helming a Gay Pride Parade with an inflated condom. It starred some of France’s most accomplished actors, including Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu. The WTF has cast some of New York’s best in The Closet, but the action takes place on a single set: the dark, low-tech Good Shepard Catholic Supply Warehouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania, owned by a faltering 20th century company selling religious goods.
The curtain rises on a depressing, brick-walled, metal filled factory office lined with shelves of religious goods, including baptismal founts, statuary, and an oil painting of the Last Supper. Given that the American theater is in the midst of a golden age of ingenious scenic design, when the visuals are sometimes more memorable than the play, this sprawling, unimaginative set not only dwarfs the actors, but is distracting to the audience. That’s a pity, because Beane’s one liners are usually hilarious — but some are lost in action on the large, cluttered stage.
In both the French and American versions of this satire, the self-effacing protagonist is a divorced, heterosexual man, estranged from his indifferent wife and son, and very worried about getting fired from the accounting job he has held all his working life. In the American version, the accountant is named Martin. In both scripts, a charismatic gay man enters his life and turns it upside down. In the French film, he is an industrial psychologist who prevents our hero from throwing himself out a window; in Beane’s version, he is a preternatually chatty, flaming, over-the-top former PR man named Ronnie. In both cases, the stranger had been fired years earlier because he is a homosexual. Now that society has become more progressive — and businesses are in legal jeopardy if they fire a gay employee — he sees a way of exacting a kind of revenge by coaching our hero to pretend that he is gay when, in fact, he is not.
This brilliant plot construct gave Veber and Beane an efficient vehicle, not only to serve up extensive social commentary, but for creating colorful characters, critiquing contemporary business practices, exploring relations between men and men as well as men and women, and providing delicious layers of text and sub-text, including examining shades of political correctness and what used to be called — simply — good manners.
The American playwright has chosen to enlarge the role of Ronnie — the actual gay man — and to expand Veber’s lampoon of cultural pieties into an extended look at how American language has been affected by its taboos — making once innocuous words, such as “sunshine,” suspect.
Director Mark Brokaw has chosen an excellent cast, starting with that veteran well-mannered actor Matthew Broderick. He is extremely funny and charismatic as the mild-mannered heterosexual, who finds himself performing as a gay man. He is amusingly careless at his job, making such mistakes as inadvertantly sending a banner reading “Christ is the only Answer” to a local synagogue. But, as a co-worker explains, he’s “the type that made America famous — a good egg.” Broderick performs much like the still eye at the center of the farcical storm: calm, understated, a perfect foil for Ronnie — the queen who makes his entrance into the drab factory like an oversize Tinker Bell.
Brooks Ashmanskas is an inspired choice for the role of the man who, like Puck, revels in stage managing the mortals in his vicinity. He brings a larger than life, over-the-top presence to the mix, hamming it up with great physicality. His loud resonant voice makes for an amusing contrast with the tempered vocals of WTF veteran Jessica Hecht, who plays the company’s shy, neurotic HR sensitivity trainer Patricia. These veterans are ably supported by Ben Ahler, currently a University of Michigan undergrad, who makes his WTF debut, holding his own as Martin’s first hostile, then (once he believes his father has come out as gay) adoring son. Ann Harada, cast as the formulaic Asian Brenda and Will Cobbs, as the equally formulaic African-American son of the Good Shepard’s owner, round out the cast.
The Closet is funny, brash, entertaining, and utterly forgettable. Director Mark Brokaw keeps the proceedings moving as quickly as if he was juicing up a high-energy musical. The peppy retro sound design by Jane Shaw also gives off song-and-dance vibes, as well as the sly costumes by Jessica Pabst. This is traditional summertime fare: a fine diversion from the news and that soon flies out of your mind. For a more mature, deeply satirical, and still relevant critique of the political craziness around us, I recommend going online and viewing the Le Placard.
Helen Epstein has been reviewing for artsfuse.org since 2010. She is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life, Music Talks, and other books about theater and the arts. You can find all her books at plunkettlakepress.com