Williamstown Theatre Festival

Review: Brooks Ashmanskas soars above smug, leaden 'The Closet'


WILLIAMSTOWN — Martin O'Reilly's life is falling apart. As played by Matthew Broderick in the world premiere of Douglas Carter Beane's arch, self-conscious farce, "The Closet" — which officially opened over the weekend at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage — he is a virtual bystander to his life.

His wife has divorced him; his college-age son, Jack (Ben Ahlers), despises him and has opted to live with his mother and her new partner; his savings have been absorbed by a monstrous money-pit house; and he fears he is about to be fired from his job at Good Shepherd Catholic Supply Warehouse for mistakenly sending a banner, "Christ is the Answer," to a local synagogue. Moreover, the business, having been outdone by competitor who brought in a bishop from Philadelphia to bless its products and has seen its sales skyrocket since, may be going belly up. Martin has arranged for a bishop from the Vatican to come to Scranton, Pa., where Good Shepherd is located, to bless the company's inventory and show the ceremony live on the company's website, but it may not be enough. And the way Martin sees it, employment in Scranton is an endangered species.

"Even the Walmart stopped looking for greeters. It's grim," a somewhat doleful Martin remarks to another employee, Patricia (Jessica Hecht), who keeps her co-workers well-supplied with homemade muffins and earns money on the side by running a series of "Safe Speak in the Workplace" before-hours workshops for the employees of Good Shepherd and the two other businesses that occupy space in this converted warehouse. Patricia also has been harboring a longstanding crush on Martin.

Help comes for Martin from an unlikely and unexpected source — a flamboyantly gay figure, Ronnie Wilde (an absolutely sublime Brooks Ashmanskas), who has made a fortune by successfully suing his former employer who fired him because he is gay. "And now I've a healthy sum in my bank account to enjoy my life. But I also got a reputation for suing, so who would hire me after that?" he asks rhetorically, with a bold, audacious swagger.

In response to an ad posted on social media by Martin, Ronnie has come to Scranton to rent half of Martin's house — "the Addams Family house," Ronnie quips. He likes what he sees in Martin when they meet; senses his vulnerabilities. When Ronnie learns from the gossipy Asian office manager, Brenda, who breaks into outbursts of show tunes at a moment's notice (a brassy and intrusive to the point of annoyance Ann Harada), that Martin is about to lose his job, Ronnie decides the only way to protect Martin, legally, is to suggest, more than suggest, that he is gay, setting in motion a chain of events that do, to Beane's credit, take a few unexpected turns.

"Inspired" by a French play by Francis Veber, Beane wants to look at the meaning of words, the context in which they are used, the stereotypical assumptions we make and our behaviors based on those assumptions. More than that, Beane wants to talk about authenticity (not an uncommon theme in his plays); what it means to be one's self and what it takes to come out of whatever closet we've put ourselves in and be our truest self. And if you haven't figured that out by the time this limbering effort reaches its conclusion, Beane spells it out for you in a gratuitous final speech, delivered by Broderick's Martin in a manner that is as disingenuous as it is sincere.

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Broderick may be the audience draw to WTF's Main Stage over the course of the play's run through July 14 but this production, directed dutifully and staged unimaginatively by Mark Brokaw, belongs to Ashmanskas who makes an art of flamboyance and excess. This is such smartly shaped work — fluid; graceful not only in its physicality but in its insight and understanding. There an emotional context that plays to a depth and self-awareness that is honest and revealing in ways in which Beane's writing is not. Those qualities come through in small ways — a look, a shift in vocal tone or physical bearing.

Beane's observations are never more pointedly made than when they come through Ashmanskas' Ronnie Wilde's mouth, especially when he is commenting on Millennial gays, "the next generation of gaybies," he calls them as he scorns a generation that is so out of the mainstream that Ronnie has known that there is, he says, "no more sarcasm; no more cherishing of the outrageous. Just, 'I am special and I need to be heard.'" Ashmanskas' Wilde cherishes the outrageous in wicked, knowing ways.

With the notable exception of Ashmanskas' work, there is little subtlety here. Beane goes for the obvious, setting up punchlines you can hear coming from a distance. In this hit-and-miss atmosphere, Beane does deliver some observations that are on point, sharp, witty, penetrating in their audacity, outrageousness and truth. But those moments are more exception than rule. The rest is simply one set-up after another from characters who are little more than irritating mouthpieces.

Broderick does have his moments, especially in a scene in which Martin pulls the rug out from Ronnie at a critical moment and then subsequently, early in the second act, when he does his best to affect a "gay" flamboyance. On the whole, however, this minimalist performance proves there are times when less truly is less.

Ahlers and Will Cobb, as Roland, Martin's African-American boss, do neither more nor less than Beane's script requires; Raymond Bokhour's Bishop Abadelli is a buffoonish caricature; and Hecht is only intermittently effective as a whining prospective romantic interest for Martin.

At two and a quarter hours, with intermission, "The Closet" feels much longer. It's overwritten and Beane's smug, muddled choices seem more in his own service than the service of his characters. When Ashmanskas is not on stage, the production moves with leaden determination. Few, if any, treasures lurk behind the door of this "Closet."

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at jborak@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6212


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