REVIEW: “The Closet” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

by Macey Levin

Martin O’Reilly is divorced, his son won’t speak to him, he’s probably going to be fired from a job he doesn’t like at a Catholic religious supplies warehouse, he has no prospects for another job, he has no money and he owns a huge white elephant of a house.  This is the making of The Closet by Douglas Carter Beane an hilarious play currently making its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Martin, wonderfully acted by Matthew Broderick, has advertised on-line for a tenant to share his house.  Ronnie Wilde (Brooks Ashmanskas,) a stitch as an exuberant, middle-aged gay man, arrives at the office and insists on renting the apartment.  After an extensive gossipy conversation regarding Martin’s plight, he decides to surreptitiously assist him to keep his job first by telling Martin’s co-worker Brenda Mishima (Ann Harada) and then by writing to bloggers he knows informing them of his newfound “husband.”  In today’s world of political correctness who would fire a gay man without enduring a critical bombardment?  Ronnie ‘s “propaganda” also convinces Patricia (Jessica Hecht,) another colleague who has a crush on Martin, and his boss Roland (Will Cobbs) that Martin is truly a homosexual. Ronnie is something of a deus ex machina bringing insight and safety to the people around him.

Later that day Ronnie returns to inform Martin of his campaign to save his job, the clerk is aghast as he reads the bloggerati on the internet.  When Jack (Ben Ahlers,) his teen-age son who has expressed his hatred for his father, gushes his admiration for Martin’s “bravery” by coming out of the closet, Martin states in front of everyone, “I’m gay!”   Thus begins a romp of hilarity and smashing performances.

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The plot summary sounds somewhat simplistic but it is a story of people… all of the characters… who deny the need to identify their true selves until they come out of their respective closets.  Martin has been wallowing in self-pity preventing him from releasing his true, wise self, while Ronnie, who was fired from a job years ago because he is gay, has neglected his life but comes to realize that he is part of a society and culture.  Pat conducts pre-work early morning workshops on sensitivity issues while trying to curry favor with those around her.  Brenda uses gossip and often breaks into song to express opinion rather than being straightforward.  Jack, who was planning to go to a business college where he could play baseball, realizes he wants to be in the theatre and vows to devote his time to rehearsals and study.  Roland also comes out with a truth he has always denied.

Broderick is suitably nerdy early on as the man who is lost and doesn’t know where to go or even what to look for.  At first after declaring his faux sexuality, he becomes freer onstage and performs broad, physical humor… almost slapstick.  As he becomes more aware of his strengths his wisdom shines through.  The glitziest role is Ashmanskas’s Ronnie with his over-the-top gay posturings, speech patterns and attitudes. Indeed, all of the characters are stereotypical caricatures.  Ashmanskas and Broderick are surrounded by a talented company who match their zaniness.  Jessica Hecht’s Pat is this side of being certifiably ditzy as she tries to buy respect from her colleagues by baking horrific lemon muffins.  Her infatuation with Martin is deflated as the story of his relationship with Ronnie is circulated.  The office manager Brenda played by a sharp, Merman-like Ann Harada, is very defensive and has the weapons to protect herself.  Ahlers as Martin’s son Jack is repulsive in his first visit to his father; when he learns of his father’s “choice” he makes a priceless transition to sloppy adoration.

The direction by Mark Brokaw is almost breathless with occasional tender moments, yet it all complements the characters and the script’s intentions.  His staging on Allen Moyer’s set, that looks like and probably smells like a warehouse, is crisp, maintaining the show’s cockeyed story.  The set in the second act has colorful additions that brighten the dingy work area.  Jessica Pabst’s costumes are proper for the characters, especially the ludicrous ones for Ronnie and the tentative Martin.  The lighting by Japhy Weideman in act two combines the dreary shop and the workers’ new flamboyance.

Beane’s script on one level is a farcical laugh riot, but as we watch we come to realize that there are serious lessons to be learned about humanity and self-respect.  Though this sounds mawkish this is one of the funniest and heart-warming plays you could see this summer.

The Closet by Douglas Carter Beane (inspired by Frances Verber’s play Le Placard), Directed by Mark Brokaw; Cast:  Matthew Broderick (Martin O’Reilly) Jessica Hecht (Patricia Pennebarry) Ben Ahlers (Jack O’Reilly) Brooks Ashmanskas (Ronnie Wilde) Ann Harada (Brenda Mishima) Will Cobbs (Roland Baldwin) Raymond Bokhour (Bishop Abadelli); Scenic Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Production Stage Manager: Lindsey Turtletaub;  Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermission; June 26-July 14; Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage; Williamstown, MA.

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