The Closet (Le Placard): Francois Pignon should've been King Kong's bride
by Drew Rowsome -Photos y Marc Lemyre
Actors who try to play gay are usually cheap and vulgar. Just be as you are.
The Closet (Le Placard) zips along with a farcical grace that skims over the central question of which is worse: homophobia or political correctness? Playwright Francis Veber, most renowned for being one of the four screenwriters who created La Cage Aux Folles, settles for gently satirizing both and keeps the proceedings light despite some very dark events and undertones.
Francois Pignon is a non-descript accountant who works in a rubber factory that mainly produces condoms. His life is a mess, mainly because he is so boring and bourgeois. He is driven to attempt suicide when he loses his job to downsizing. If not for the intervention of his new neighbour, the delightful René Lemieux putting a mature and grounded spin on the stock character of the wacky but wise gay neighbour, Pignon would lie splattered beneath his window. That Lemieux has ulterior motives of his own is sadly glossed over, probably to avoid any hint of, despite them being my favourite aspirational cliché, a stock vengeful gay villain.
Lemieux convinces the gullible Pignon to pose as a gay man so that, as a representative of a condom factory, it will become a political problem if he is fired. Pignon reluctantly agrees and the farce begins. Turns out that gay is not always so bad, in fact in Veber's world it is fascinating and fun if drained of any sexual content. Suddenly Pignon is living the life he always wanted and his co-workers and family learn to see the simple man's virtues, including his previously oddly overlooked pert derriere.
The Closet is presented in French and while the surtitles are helpful (for those of us who don't use our French enough to even approach bilinguality) they are also distracting and caused me to miss a lot of the subtleties that the actors put into their performances (and I suspect I was already missing a lot of linguistic, and hilarious, subtleties). When just watching Pierre Simpson - a very wide-eyed, bumbling and sweetly sexy Pignon - the deliberately blank character became human and roils with comic panic and emotion. Though Pignon is bumbling and painfully nervous, it is inconceivable that no-one in the office was attracted to his obvious Gallic charm and physical appeal until they assumed he was gay.
The surtitles do, as Simpson suggests, make Le Placard as accessible to non-Francophones as a foreign film. Which brings up the only other problem with The Closet: it was originally a film and is still a lot of short scenes strung together with awkward semi-blackouts interspersed. A few times the blackouts are used to advance the action and provide commentary, but mostly they just puncture the effervescence. Perhaps Veber and director Guy Mignault should have attempted a re-envisioning instead of just a recreation.
All of the characters do terrible things and all of the actors apply charm to earn forgiveness and keep the comic energy spinning. Particularly delightful is Christian Laurin as Felix Santini, the rugby-playing HR manager whose hyper-masculinity is - surprise!/spoiler alert! - a closet of his own. Laurin applies a twinkle in his eyes, a deep desperation, and one party trick that earned applause and much laughter, to turn a caricature into a blustering buffoon complementary to Simpson's passive Pignon. The balance is so delicate that when Pignon is disgusted by Santini's clumsy inadvertent (?) advances and states that he does not see himself as "King Kong's bride," it hurt more (though we all laughed) than all the slurs of "fag" and "sissy" and "homo" that had preceded.
While The Closet is a trifle, safe for all sensibilities, it is a treat to enjoy a mainstream, I can easily picture it in a dinner or community theatre setting, play where gay is the reward and solution rather than the tragic flaw. Lemieux, the wise older gay elder, says when Pignon is gay-bashed, "I didn't think that still happened," and for a brief shining moment the comedy stops, the central dilemma snaps into focus, and we pause before The Closet continues on its giddy way. But at least we know, amidst the laughter, that homophobia is definitely worse.
The Closet continues until Sun, May 29 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. The surtitled version is on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. theatrefrancais.com