‘The Closet’ of Ignorance

Comedy might be the hardest genre to review.

Hilarity to one person can just as easily be horror to another, and both reactions are equally valid. Laughter is an emotional response, and there’s no right way to respond to art.

So what is a lowly critic like me to do in such situations, especially when I find myself as the horrified party-pooper, surrounded by a revelry of laughter? To avoid such navel-gazing subjectivity, I try not to evaluate comedies by how much they tickle my personal funny bone. Rather, I strive to assess what the comedy’s about. If there’s merit of any kind to the tickling attempts, then the piece is redeemable in some way.

Unfortunately, besides Brooks Ashmanskas Brooks Ashmankasing it up, The Closet at the Williamstown Theatre Festival boasts no other redeeming qualities. It’s irredeemable from top to bottom, and would be advisable for all involved if it died a quick, quiet death before spreading this turpitude any further.

I promise: I hate to be THIS guy. The current trend in criticism to prioritize a work’s politics over every other element, scorning anything that doesn’t share the writer’s wokeness, leaves just as bad of a taste in my mouth as anyone else’s. It’s not that I’m offended by the politics of Douglas Carter Beane’s new play, though many will find them offensively odious. I’m offended by his shallow understanding of what he’s attempting to satirize, by his lazy pursuit of any recognizable truth, by his careless treatment of subjects that require immense care.

I know, I know, it’s satire! Anything goes (a song that’s explicitly mentioned during the show; subtlety isn’t Beane’s strong suit)! But there’s nothing incendiary here, nothing transgressive, nothing subversive. Smart satire must know the in and outs of its target, arguably more so than its victims. Only through such rigorous probing can an observer discover the comedic core worth sending up, the comedy that resides on the flip-side of the tragedy.

Instead, The Closet is in lockstep with retrograde notions of political correctness. Oh, you got that right; here’s yet another neo-liberal railing against today’s “excessive” political correctness by straight up making fun of it. Beane comes across like an apathetic white dude disengaged from the pulse of society, plugging in references to political correctness like a mad game of ad-libs, without fully comprehending the concepts he’s degrading. His caricatures feel like reactions to Fox News’ portrayals of the left’s outrage, chiding the extremity of their sensitivity without actually reckoning with the significance of what they’re struggling to accomplish.

The Closet bears no trace of any good-faith research on Beane’s part; how much has he studied the origins of political correctness, of the insidious — and sometimes explicit — influence of how politically incorrect society has been allowed to operate for too long? I ask because his thought-process on display herein sounds like the sort of knee-jerk perception to political correctness espoused by those who’ve only preliminarily investigated alternative conceptions to their own.

I welcome conservative viewpoints in the pervasively-liberal theatre; we need more contrarians to provide points-of-view removed from the prevailing perspective — dissenting opinions will ultimately (hopefully) strengthen the discourse. But a constructive conversation necessitates working to empathize with the other party, a blind spot for a bevy of liberals. And what else is satire than a light-hearted discussion with what’s being satirized?

But the direction of that satirization is crucial. Comedies are best when they punch up, challenging the norms and mores of the establishment. If the establishment’s represented in the audience, even better. As much as progressive art tends to be lambasted for preaching to the choir, most theaters — including the two at Williamstown (this one’s on the main stage) — are dominated by old, white, wealthy, left-leaning centrists, those who vote Democrat but think the modern counterculture movement takes itself too seriously and had thus gone too far. You know, regurgitations of the same sentiments their parents lobbed at them, which history has proven were short-sighted.

And it’s these exact people that were having such a blast at The Closet, which reflects, and thus justifies, their reticence to come around to the march of progress. They’re pointing and laughing, not pointing and understanding. There’s a fine line between depiction and perpetuation. Art can accurately present the fallibility of humanity without endorsing it. Yes, these small-town Americana characters could very believably act in the ways Beane dictates, without knowing better. The problem: the play makes no indication that it knows any better either. It doesn’t interrogate the beliefs it’s flaunting, nor those it’s poking.    

Beane would probably, with a laugh, call me a snowflake for this review. The play clearly struck a chord, thus it achieved its intended effect. But that’s a classic justification to excuse the worst behavior, and it’s often a result of lazy intellectualism, the sort that pervades his flippant disregard for other ways of thinking regarding his focus. Unfortunately, good writing requires regarding the subject of what you’re satirizing seriously. There’s no traces of striving to understand the other side in The Closet, just regressive mocking.

As such, there’s no good writing to find here.

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