THEATRE REVIEW: ‘The Closet’ at WTF engenders delight, insight and ‘honest laughter’More Info
By Douglas Carter Beane, inspired by Francis Veber’s play “Le Placard”
Directed by Mark Brokaw
“From now on we’re all about fun.”
I don’t know about you, but I love to laugh. I am, therefore, tickled pink to have this world premiere comedy in the neighborhood and on the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Some might describe it as merely a sitcom, but I see it as a classic stage comedy, the sort of play that inspires television sitcoms. There is a situation at the base of this play, one that is altered considerably by other situations that overwhelm the original. A man prone to major mistakes in his work is on the verge of being fired by a boss who considers this man to be insignificant. A third man interferes in a strange way that changes everything including reception, reactions, relationships, reality, romance and reverberations within the family structure, already weakened and at the bottom of the whole problem.
The play’s title gives you a major hint about the plot and how it works. “Coming out of the closet” has been used as a phrase describing gay men who have lived lives of secrecy and denial finally admitting publicly who they actually are, and that — in a manner of speaking — is what this play deals with, although that simplification doesn’t actually explain this play. Martin O’Reilly, a clerk in the Good Shepherd Catholic Supply Company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has been divorced by his controlling and unsatisfied wife, an act that has left him somewhat confused and irresponsible. His son has been taken away from him. His over-decorated monster of a home is unmanageable and requires a renter to make ends meet. A potential renter, Ronnie Wilde, appears on the scene, likes Martin, loves the house and moves in on both the home and the ex-husband. Wilde is outrageously gay, wealthy and extravagantly interested in helping the situation resolve itself.
Matthew Broderick plays Martin. He is quite wonderful as the schlemiel who is taken in by everyone and every incident until he finally takes a hand in his own fate. Broderick plays this sort of role with a dry, droll delivery and is as believable as anyone could be caught in such a delicate dilemma. To keep him from being fired, Wilde declares to Martin’s co-workers that the two of them are lovers, outing Martin as gay although the man is actually straight. As the play progresses, this declaration becomes a major problem and problem-solver simultaneously. Its repercussions are continually hilarious and Broderick plays each twist and turn simply and in as straightforward a manner as possible. Curiously, his unrelenting “straight” behavior only gives credence to the previously closeted man. Broderick’s work, when he tries to play gay, is very amusing. He is the ideal foil for the plot that is foisted on his character.
The man who wreaks havoc on the simple world of Martin O’Reilly is Ronnie Wilde, played by the consummate comedic actor Brooks Ashmanskas. No one can take simplicity to an extreme so effectively as Ashmanskas, and here he has a world of stereotypical behavior from which to cull his every move, gesture and verbal styling. He has the occasional serious moment but, from his first entrance to his final allegiance shift, he uses his comic capabilities to the max. This is a masterful performance of a perfectly written character.
At the performance I attended, it seemed that the cast was not being miked, so an occasional line uttered by Ashmanskas was unheard by me in Row G. He was not alone in having a few words, undoubtedly funny ones in this play, go astray. Raymond Bokhour as Bishop Abadelli, a visitor from Rome, Italy, used a difficult-to-decipher accent that would have made things difficult if I could have heard him, but sadly I couldn’t make out much of what he said without some sort of electronic support. His physical performance was clean and clear, however, so I had a clear idea of what the Bishop’s intent was at all times.
The play is set exclusively in the office and warehouse of the Catholic Supply Company and the staff played major roles in the evolution of Martin’s lifestyle. Will Cobbs played Roland Baldwin, the owner’s son and the boss of the plant. Chief protestor and protector, Roland is a man of many facets and Cobbs delivered nicely on all of them, sometimes moving from drama to melodrama to high comedy in a single speech. Talking about an Italian meal, his dialogue moved from Italian to sexual allusion without a break or hesitation, and the outcome of this verbal gaffe was as funny as anything else in the play.
As the office manager with a crazed and edgy tendency to break into musical comedy songs, Ann Harada made the most of her character, Brenda Mishima. This extraordinary character actress with the vocal prowess of Ethel Merman creates a character trapped in a job that is keeping her from being a local stage star of note. Harada is an absolute delight, although Brenda is just about the most literal sitcom character in the play. It is Harada in the role that keeps it bizarrely realistic. I almost ached for her to belt out a complete song at some point, but she is confined to eight-bar swatches of song. Maybe in her next role, this fine actress can be the best thing on Broadway in a show created just for her.
In a role more fussy than her usual outings, the incredible Jessica Hecht delivers a comically subtle portrayal of a woman in love, frustrated by her situation and yet unable to step aside and let the world pass her by. I sometimes think that Hecht will find a role that not even her talents can rescue but, in this case, she makes the most out of the ridiculous aspects of her character, Patricia Pennebarry. In the course of the two days that the play covers, Hecht advances from impending old maid to sex-starved young matron to dynamic sex-kitten, a virtual Ann-Margret in a miniskirt that embarrasses her. Pick a dynamic for a woman in love and Hecht can handle it; in this play she handles a multitude of them, one right after another without a break. Broderick may be the star of the play, but Hecht is who you will remember.
The seventh character in the play is Martin’s teenage son, Jack, played by Ben Ahlers, an energetic young actor whose character adds a resonance and reality check to everything that goes on. Angry over the divorce of his parents, displeased with his father’s lack of personality, he is the turn-around person in the play, the one who motivates much of Martin’s decisions about his course of action. Ahlers is quite wonderful in the role, and the change in the character from Act One to Act Two is about the most realistic aspect of this comedy of errors.
The 2001 French film written and directed by Francis Veber has been given a major overhaul in this new play, but the idea is still the same. If anything, playwright Douglas Carter Beane has made it funnier by altering the film’s situation into this current construction. Mark Brokaw has done a wonderful job directing this piece. His New York theater work has been of a more serious nature and it is, perhaps, that history which has allowed him to provide a clarity and reality to this very amusing, silly story about the truths beneath the illusions we create to maintain our existence in this very confusing world. Allen Moyer has provided a very realistic set against which this comedy is played, but Jessica Pabst has created costumes that give the comedy a reality all its own. Japhy Weideman’s lighting design is just right for the play — bright where it should be, focused and tight when it must be.
Something new is always up against our memories of other things older and tried and, in this case, the play in Williamstown is up against historic gay-themed plays that amused and, at the same, time enlightened us about other people’s perceptions of human value. This is not another “Boys in the Band” or “La Cage aux Folles” or “Twelfth Night.” This is a laugh-out-loud comedy that pleases on so many levels, makes a statement or two and releases an audience’s need to ignore what’s going on outside the theater for a bit over two hours. This is what we all need right now: honest laughter.
The Closet plays on the main stage of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Massachusetts, through Saturday, July 14. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to wtfestival.org or call the box office at (413) 458-3253.