'The Closet': Allowing people to openly be who they are ...


WILLIAMSTOWN — Ronnie Wilde is coming back to his old hometown — Scranton, Pa. It's an old coal mining city, an industrial center 100 years ago and showing a conservative and grungy side today, and it has very little openly gay community. He knows he will be alone, but he feels a need to move.

"New York is too sad for me now," he says, "too many places and people gone."

He is planning to share a big old house where he remembers going to parties as a teenager, and so he meets Martin O'Reilly, who is on the verge of losing everything — his job, his family, his son.

And they create a whole new comedy.

Martin is Matthew Broderick, veteran of film and stage; Wilde is Tony nominee Brooks Ashmanskas, and they take the stage with a cast including Anne Harada, Jessica Hecht and Will Cobbs, as Williamstown Theatre Festival opens its 2018 season with Douglas Carter Beane's "The Closet," a world premiere inspired by Francis Veber's play and film "Le Placard."

Beane's is an American story, and very much in this place and time, said director Mark Brokaw, by phone from WTF in a break in rehearsal.

The story begins the morning Ronnie walks into the Good Shepard Catholic Supply Warehouse to meet his new housemate and finds the business and Martin on the edge.

Martin is afraid, and Ronnie is moved to help him. He wants to hold off the wreck he sees coming and preserve the place he wants to retreat to, Brokaw said, and he wants to get back at the world for what it did to him.

Ronnie was fired some years back from a job he loved because he is gay, and he has drifted since then. New York has changed for him, Brokaw said, and gay culture has changed.

"He fought for gay rights growing up, and he feels Millennials have a lack of history" — they are living in the present, not understanding the fears and rebellions and triumphs of the past.

There are still risks, and they are real, but Ronnie has seen changes even in the past few years, and what cost him his job can now make a man unfirable.

Seeing Martin in pain, Ronnie makes a spontaneous choice, and the consequences outstrip him. His presence and flair influence Martin and everyone around him.

They also feel isolated — Martin's son, struggling with his parents' divorce; his boss is working for his mother's company; his colleagues include a mother supporting her family, protecting herself with gossip, and a lonely woman baking lemon muffins and leading sensitivity trainings.

"Everyone in our story is hiding from something," Brokaw said. "In a way, Ronnie is hiding. Martin tells him, don't hide in your imagination — take a risk."

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Ronnie does take risks, and when he goes into the building, that energy rolls in with him. Music by Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim sound over the partitions. Suddenly, anything goes. Everyone in the room is reaching for what they have longed for and never thought they could have. Music. Self-esteem. Passion. Permission to feel and shout and tell the truth.

Political correctness gives way to honesty, Brokaw said. But not without care. Beane is advocating for both honesty and thought. Exuberance and satire on sensitivity exercises overflow — and they look at what it means to come face to face with someone unfamiliar, or to think differently about someone familiar.

It matters, Brokaw said.

"Even since the play was written and especially in the events of the last month, this is growing in importance. Not using words of hate is important. That group of words keeps growing, and it may include words that surprise you."

Sometimes an insult is clear and intended, he said. And sometimes someone says something demeaning without fully understanding or thinking through what they are saying.

Words have history in them. Martin's colleague, Pat, explains the layers of insult in a phrase like "Indian giver." Someone using it may not actively think of European settlers taking land from the Shawnee and the Iroquois, she says, but the sense of exclusion is there in his thinking. He is using the words in contempt and anger. And they still hurt.

Recognizing what shuts people down or pushes them away is central in a play about allowing people to be openly who they are.

Beane often looks closely at identity in his plays, like the Tony nominated "Little Dog Laughs"; the identity that feels natural; the identify the world forces a man to take on.

"The Closet" is the fourth project Beane and Brokaw have worked on together, and Brokaw has seen the show evolve over the last year and a half, as the people behind the slapstick have become flesh.

Ronnie is keenly aware of the role of the gay man who appears only to straighten out straight people's lives, he said, a kind of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

"You've seen them," Ronnie says, "the supporting role in a play or film or TV show. They're always there and nice and perhaps other worldly. Oh, it's everywhere nowadays. The gay best friend who is completely sexless, but a sex expert, who does everything just like a straight person only better and with panache."

And that isn't him. He isn't a side-kick. And he isn't a hero.

"The way mainstream culture first dealt with homosexuality is to create something extraordinary," Brokaw said, "so straight people could accept them. They dealt with acceptance by making gay people superhuman. But people are people."

In Ronnie and in this moment, Beane wants to celebrate what makes gay culture different, Brokaw said, what is meant to be cherished. When two lonely men reach out to a hard world with laughter and generosity, and the world reaches back, how much can change?


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