(l to r) Brooks Ashmanskas and Matthew Broderick in ‘The Closet.’ (Photo: Carolyn Brown)
Made you wince?
Welcome to the world of Douglas Carter Beane’s new play, The Closet. The playwright turns to the 2001 film, “Le Plecard” about a man who fakes homosexuality to keep from being fired at work for inspiration, packing it with zippy and potentially offensive one-liners. Mr. Beane, after confessing several false starts (setting the story in its original France, then England), settled on the familiar territory of Scranton, Pennsylvania—not far from where he was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre. In spite of the puddle jumping, The Closet still feels more Lorna Luft than Liza Minnelli.
Frumpy Martin O’Reilly (Matthew Broderick) is one of three employees at Good Shepherd Wholesale and Retail Religious Supply, but his head is on the chopping block because of some critical work errors combined with a competing company’s new papal blessing video campaign. Co-worker Patricia Pennebarry (Jessica Hecht, whose ditzy but loveable performance may remind some of Julie Haggerty in “Airplane!”) has a crush on Martin but treads carefully as an expert in workplace sensitivity training.” Brenda Mishima (Ann Harada) is the company’s gossip queen and plays her ethnic diversity background card to show up late for work. Roland Baldwin (Will Cobbs) as the owner’s son leads the small team, but it’s never clear what any of them do besides shuffle papers and at one point, postage stamp packages. Then again, it doesn’t matter much. The thin framework is merely a convention to set up one of the oldest tricks in the theatrical playbook: mistaken identity.
Ronnie Wilde (Brooks Ashmanskas) rolls into town with a lump of money from a lawsuit he won after being fired. His accusation: discrimination based on sexual orientation. The details of this exposition are vague, but make no mistake: Wilde is a walking gay cliché. Costume designer Jessica Pabst turns up the gaydar to maximum capacity, outfitting Mr. Ashmanskas in pink pants, a periwinkle blazer and boldly striped loafers. Let’s just say his feet barely hit the ground.
Ronnie has arrived in town with the intent of moving into a portion of Martin’s house, which is for rent due to a pending divorce. When he gets wind of the poor guy’s looming firing, Ronnie quickly hatches a plan to pretend that Martin is gay, riding on the recent wave of sensitivity around workplace discrimination. Things start looking up for Martin, even with the strained relationship with his teenage son Jack (Ben Ahlers), who finds a newfound respect for his dad after he comes out.
Best-laid plans begin to unravel when Bishop Abadelli (Raymond Bokhour) arrives to bless the Good Shepherd and discovers the gay couple. The action kicks into high gear as Martin embraces, then eventually dismisses his newfound identity, reverting back to his true self and a budding romance with Patricia.
The Closet is an occasionally amusing evening of satire and farce, aptly directed by Mark Brokaw but how it fits on audiences depends on body type. Mr. Beane lays down a premise similar to a Comedy Central Roast that nothing is off limits. But comedians taking jabs at one another is different than creating believable, fully realized characters with something to lose or gain.
Mr. Broderick (boyishly echoing Ferris Bueller thirty-two years later) as Martin provides a sweet anchor to the antics that unfold around him, especially when Ronnie coaches him to sniff cinnamon and walk on bubble wrap to escalate is gayness. Mr. Ashmanskas’s flamboyant Ronnie, while funny, reeks of clichés and stereotypes of first iteration gay characters such as Showtime’s mid-eighties sitcom Brothers.
Martin eventually admits to the rouse in a very Dorothy-in-Oz monologue that speaks not only to his truth but also to those around him. Its sentimental tone feels like a pretty bow on a gift you might ultimately return. Or just keep in your closet.
Williamstown Theatre Festival
’62 Center for Theatre and Dance
1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA
Through July 14
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor.