‘The Closet’ plays sexual identity for old-fashioned laughs
WILLIAMSTOWN — The premise of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Closet’’ is that an employee could hold onto his job by pretending to be gay, betting that his company’s fear of being accused of homophobia and discrimination would outweigh its desire to fire him.
That premise feels just a bit wobbly in the current political environment, doesn’t it?
Directed by Mark Brokaw and starring Matthew Broderick as the masquerading employee and the reliably delightful Jessica Hecht as the coworker who is carrying a torch for him, “The Closet’’ is premiering just days after Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his plan to retire — a development that ignited concerns that a (further) right-tilting court will turn back the clock on legal protections for gay citizens in the workplace.
Though it’s obviously coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum, “The Closet’’ turns back the clock in its own way. While it’s a world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival and is set in the present day, an old-fashioned, self-consciously “naughty’’ vibe pervades “The Closet,’’ making it feel curiously dated at times. There are unwelcome echoes of “Three’s Company’’ in the way we are asked to believe that a case of mistaken homosexuality would unleash pandemonium in 2018. (This may stem from the fact that “The Closet’’ was inspired by Francis Veber’s “Le Placard,’’ which originated as the screenplay for a 2001 film and was later adapted into a stage play.)
Playwright Beane (“The Nance,’’ “Xanadu,’’ “The Little Dog Laughed’’) throws a few jabs at the excesses of political correctness while trafficking in some hoary ethnic and sectarian stereotypes with what one assumes is the goal of subverting them. For all of Beane’s considerable wit and his ability to fashion choice one-liners, that goal is only occasionally achieved.
And Broderick? He plays what has become an overly familiar type for him, from Leo Bloom in “The Producers’’ on: the despondent nebbish at midlife, here named Martin. His marriage has failed, his son views him with scorn, and now, after one too many mistakes, Martin is about to get canned from his job in the Good Shepherd Catholic Supply Warehouse in Scranton, Pa. Broderick’s plaintive delivery doesn’t really vary no matter what situation Martin is confronting; the actor doesn’t bring much that is distinctive to his portrayal.
What primarily elevates “The Closet’’ are the comic skills of Hecht and Brooks Ashmanskas, both of whom add to their lengthy track records of strong work at Williamstown, along with Ann Harada. Hecht can make virtually anything funny; in “The Closet,” her ultra-P.C. Patricia treads that quintessentially Hechtian line between obliviousness and self-awareness. We’re never entirely sure which side of that line Patricia is on at any given moment, and when she speaks, she seems as surprised as anybody else by the words that have just come out of her mouth.
Though she is saddled with some of Beane’s clunkier dialogue, Harada makes a vivid impression as Brenda, a secretary who thrives on gossip and will belt out snatches of Sondheim songs on the slightest pretext, or on no pretext at all. Ashmanskas, meanwhile, attacks the role of the flamboyantly gay Ronnie Wilde with the stage-seizing brio he has brought to Williamstown productions as varied as “She Stoops to Conquer’’ and “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.’’ It is Ronnie who comes up with the idea that Martin should pose as gay to save his job, and proceeds to help the cause by posing as his lover. With his ascot, his white-and-brown striped shoes, and his self-dramatizing flights of rhetoric, Ronnie Wilde might as well be named Oscar. “You talk like what you say is written in cursive,’’ Brenda tells him. (A bishop played by Raymond Bokhour, on the other hand, might as well be named Chico Marx, so exaggerated is his Italian accent.)
The “revelation’’ that Martin is gay inspires a few of the people in his life to question aspects of their own identity, including his son, Jack (Ben Ahlers, very good), and his seemingly homophobic boss, Roland (Will Cobbs). The changes they undergo are part of this comedy’s none-too-subtle message: that everybody occupies a closet of some kind, and that true happiness can only be found by breaking out of it. If only “The Closet’’ itself broke out of the mold more decisively.
Play by Douglas Carter Beane. Inspired by Francis Veber’s play “Le Placard.’’ Directed by Mark Brokaw. Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival, at Main Stage, Williamstown, through July 14. Tickets: $50-$75, 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.org