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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Closet

Well, my darling, the worst thing has happened. We are just like them!— Ronnie
Brooks Ashmanskas and Matthew Broderick (Photo: Carolyn Brown)
Seven characters on stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival's The Closet have reached the mind-numbing dead-end existence which can only result in either a two-hour existential drama or explode into a laugh-out-loud comedy of errors.

Fortunately for the audience, Douglas Carter Beane's world premiere splashes a delightfully silly farce satirizing the American penchant for extreme political correctness onto Allen Moyer's realistically designed Good Shepherd Religious Supply Warehouse. The mayhem which ensues assails as many sacrosanct political and social ideologies as the writer can address and the knowing audience is in on the joke.

Matthew Broderick's Martin O'Reilly is a colorless human shell who has been beaten down by life's demands and disappointments and speaks with virtually no affect. His grasping wife has left him to rattle around in the huge gothic horror of a house that was once her dream. His teen-age son despises him not only for the divorce but for his lack of backbone.

Martin is now about to be fired from the job he hates but needs. It seems that hiis increasing incompetence has contributed to further losses at an already dwindling business in Scranton, PA's downward spiraling economy. Broderick is of course well-know for having perfected the role of the nebbish —the guy who attracts trouble by merely breathing — afraid to assert even the smallest desire or objection.

When his son Jack (Ben Ahlers) barges into the workplace to demand money and leave keys, his palpable disrespect and anger elicit almost no response from Martin who seems to expect nothing more from his life or son. With teenaged self-righteous indignation Ahlers' Jack vociferously expresses his dissatisfaction with his life. These outbursts mask his fears that he too will be trapped like the dejected bus riders he sees each day— "Losers!" Jack is the catalyst for Martin's ensuing flirtation with Ronnie Wilde's (the wonderful Brooks Ashmanskas)whimsical machinations.

Returning to his home town to nurse old wounds and isolate himself from an increasingly alienating world, the puckish Ronnie rents half of Martin's house and then decides to insert himself into Martin's crumbling life by foisting a gay veneer onto Martin's straight but dull persona. He convinces Martin that if he is perceived as a homosexual and married to Ronnie that his problems will be solved. No one will fire him because of assumed legal repercussions, Before Martin can object, Ronnie has outed him and the meltdown contributes to the chaos and revelations which set the comedy in motion.

Ronnie is a witty bon vivant, and his stereotypical mannerisms and joie de vivre light up the room. A master of timing and inflection, his fey physicality beguiles an audience with his antics and snappy repartee. And Brooks Ashmanskas has created a character who entertains himself as his thoughts and actions bulldoze the mundane from the humdrum warehouse world.

All of the fallout that follows the revelations create, and eventually resolve, Martin's problems — but not before more madcap dilemmas twist and turn through even wilder plot intrigues. Martin serves as foil to Ashmanskas Ronnieā€˜s stereotypical advice on how to be "gay." This unleashes havoc on the entire office staff, his son and a clueless bishop.

Ann Harada's office manager Brenda's relish of gossip and backbiting hides a gifted Broadway wanna-be. A singing mom economically trapped, Brenda's glee at finding herself in the exciting world of alleged homosexual decorators and colorful lifestyles in which much of the gay world is often perceived, sends Harada's Brenda into ecstatic bursts of show tunes in response to conversational cues. Harada's voice is powerful and could be show-stopping if she were the center of attention; but we have to be content with her joyful, albeit short, renditions of Cole Porter, Sondheim and Bachrach snippets.
Jessica Hecht's Patricia Pennebarry has the thankless job of P.C. Instructor for most of the offices in the building. Her explanations of incorrect and hurtful language might persuade even the most sensitive soul to communicate by sign language in order to avoid harassment charges, which is exactly what happens to the audience's delight. Pennebarry's mousy demeanor hides a lusty woman who has waited almost too long to reveal the truth in her heart. Hecht's gradual transition from repressed to risque is a delicious unleashing of pent-up desire which is what makes her a joy to watch.

Roland (Will Cobbs) is caught in a web of self-deception. He has been ordered to fire Martin by his mother and owner of the business, but he's grown to like Martin and to his surprise even has feelings that are causing him consternation. Cobb's performance as the seemingly anti-intellectual ax-man probably has one of of the funniest expositions on Italian food ever written, which reveals his own secret sexual inclinations — all without taking a break or slowing the pace.

Even Bishop Abadelli, who has been sent by the Vatican on a ridiculous task to perform a digital blessing is tempted with the help of Olive Garden breadsticks to think for himself and disobey orders to help bring about a happy denouement.

The plot line is, of course, improbable, but the pointed message is as relevant today as any Shakespeare could have dreamt up. Find a passion in life and pursue it. Take risks. Be yourself, and above all, be kind. Watch your words and catch stereotypical thinking before it isolates us from one another.

Originally a French film Le Placard, Beane's writing and Mark Brokaw's direction of a talented cast runs with the farcical set-up to create laughter where needed and a message where necessary. The lighting by Japhy Weideman and costumes by Jessica Pabst keep pace with the characters' realizations that their lives need to reflect inner desires no matter the consequences. As the characters are released from despair — the night's antics having freed passions long hidden,the young O'Reilly begins Titania's monologue in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Though he does not complete the monologue Shakespeare's words ring on: "These are the forgeries of jealousy...and this same progeny of evil comes from debate, from our dissension; We are their parents and original."

Amid the laughter of The Closet there is much to contemplate.

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The Closet by Douglas Carter Beane (inspired by Frances Verber's play Le Placard)
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Cast: Matthew Broderick (Martin O'Reilly) Jesssica 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
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Costume Design: Jessica Pabst
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Stage Manager: Lindsey Turtletaub
Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermission;
Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage; Williamstown, MA From 6/26/18; closing 7/14/18
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at June 30 performance

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