It’s a subject that has been explored since the dawn of written language. From sources as disparate as the Sphinx’s riddle to Oedipus in Ancient Greek mythology, to Shakespeare’s classic Seven Ages of Man speech, all the way to Albee, and even The Cher Show, man has expounded on the concept that any situation in life is filtered through the age and experience of the character passing through. Not only do individuals of different ages draw different interpretations from the same life scenario, but also the flip side that life provides different versions of the same experience to different generations. Playwright Siegmund Fuchs, however, has found a creative way to put a contemporary and pertinent spin on that trope in his thought-provoking and intuitive self-proclaimed “metaphysical comedy”, In the Closet, currently receiving its Baltimore premiere at Third Wall Productions in a guest residency at Function Coworking Community, by adapting the concept to a Gay Ages of Man.
The unit set is, no surprise, a closet. “It’s a metaphor. Run with it.” jokes one of the characters early on. And a “highly-functioning” one it is, observes another. The closet is almost a fifth character in this clever four-actor play. The actual closet set, from which the actors emerge and depart throughout, is, of course, also the symbolic closet which gay men have been inhabiting out of necessity or convenience since, well, long before even the Sphinx’s riddle to Oedipus.
The inhabitants of this particular closet are four men of various ages dealing with various issues. H. Ray Lawson is a gentleman in his 60’s dealing with the impending death of his partner and his limited options after, as traditional nursing homes are not as welcoming to homosexual applicants. Michael Zellhofer is a defeated man in his 40’s freshly recovering from a stint in the mental hospital after a nervous breakdown, dealing with the fact that he is alone, and the youth-obsessed gay culture really has no place for its participants who have aged out. Stephen Foreman is a 20-something in his gay prime, attractive, healthy, smart, engaging, and recovering from the physical and emotional trauma of a violent rape. His attorney has recommended he hide his sexuality because no jury will believe a gay man was violated. John, the only named character (Angel Duque), is a fresh faced 18-year-old who has just had his first sexual encounter with a man and is rushing into the closet when he is faced with the post-climatic implications of his landmark accomplishment. Over the course of the next two hours, we learn about how differently these four acquaintances view the scenarios from their respective chronological perches, but also how they alternatively find elements within them that are uniting and universal.
All four actors are engaging as a core and in their featured moments with their individual standouts. The younger pair tend to run the action of the show. Foreman is an exhilarating force from the moment he barges into the closet, funny and brash, on top of his game. But he is riveting when he flips this, all in a raw and suffocating scene during which he graphically recounts the pain, brutality, and shame of his rape and the aftermath. Duque breezes in as a literal breath of fresh air for this stale, cramped closet. He is a visceral clash of hormones, endorphins, and old-fashioned guilt and fear as he ricochets back and forth between the exuberance of his life-defining experience and the realizations of all its dreaded implications in the real world outside the confines of this safe place where he is currently residing. He is sweet and endearing when he looks forward to all the bright new opportunities, but a manic, neurotic mess when he contemplates his future looking at the not-so-appealing options staring him in the face.
But while Foreman and Duque get the bulk of the physical action and comedy, the more experienced pair sit patiently to deliver the emotional blows of the show. Zellhofer is mesmerizing as he details the events that led up to his nervous breakdown. The invisibility that eventually comes when the pride parade passes by and the middle-aged casualties are left to feel alone, unattractive, ignored, even ridiculed by the very vivacious gay culture they wholeheartedly embraced just a short decade or two before. A culture defined by sex leaves its aged feeling undesirable and asexual, useless. But Lawson, who provides a cynically humorous presence early on, unleashes the biggest emotional coup of the evening. Faced with the ultimate burden of life, the fragileness of mortality, he puts all the issues of his younger counterparts into a sad and humbling perspective.
Director Emily Daubenmire keeps the action moving despite her claustrophobic confines of the setting. She keeps a clear flow from the events in the room to the many flashbacks employed to tell their stories, with very effective physical lighting changes designed by Jim Schomo utilizing the mere dozen or so lights at his disposal in this pop up venue. She has a good handle on her characters. Her pace is consistent and tight but suffers in a few isolated instances. The beginning scene is a little lax as we first get to know Lawson’s and Zellhofer’s characters through their banal introductory dialogue and could be tighter and faster considering we eventually find out the bond these men have is so strong they can actually finish each other’s sentences. There is also little urgency in the physical transition in and out of a quick costume change into Foreman’s very heightened courtroom flashback. But those instances may have improved as the actors get more comfortable with the piece.
A special word to set designers Patrick Rudai and Jordan Hollett, who have created the universe in which these four integral characters are defined. There are many ways they could have gone, from Martha Stewart decorative and hyper-organized, or highly stylized full of Restoration Hardware (it is a gay closet after all, and if you’re using the stereotypical metaphor…) but they settled on a visual that is a mix of pantry and garage storage area. It’s cluttered, departmentalized but messy, full of useless accumulations, and unfinished, just like the lives and minds of the four men taking solace there. If the Closet is indeed a metaphor, they use that metaphor very effectively.
As an area premiere, Fuchs’ script is a small revelation. What could be an evening of all the clichés and stereotypes of a Bravo direct-to-video release is instead full of insight, sensitivity, and unflinching honesty. He strikes an ideal balance of humor and pathos and treats all his characters with an even perspective. He has a gift of tackling important issues and ideas honestly and directly, but without getting preachy, a trap even some of his more prestigious Tony-lauded predecessors have never managed to avoid. All signs point to him being a talent that bears some following to see what he accomplishes next.
Third Wall has scored a quiet major event here. This could be the only chance in the foreseeable future to experience this work’s smart and important message in a production that is not only well written, well-conceived, and well-acted, but created with an obvious degree of passion and love. This small, independent production in a pop-up space could easily fall off the theatrical radar this busy season. Don’t let it.
In the Closet features strong language and sexual content.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
In The Closet plays through January 27, 2019 with Third Wall productions at The Foundation Coworking Community— 4709 Harford Road in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.