A Cake and Employment Are on the Agenda

Posted July 8, 2018 5:19 p.m. EDT

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — In 2012, Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker, citing a religious objection to same-sex marriage, declined to make a wedding cake for David Mullins and Charlie Craig. It took six years for the resulting case to be resolved — and then only narrowly — by the Supreme Court’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in June.

It took the playwright Bekah Brunstetter substantially less time to write “The Cake,” which riffs on that case, and to see it produced around the country. Since its premiere at the Echo Theater Company in Los Angeles in June 2017, it has been staged in La Jolla, California, Chicago and Houston, among other cities, with a New York production scheduled for the Manhattan Theater Club in February.

I caught “The Cake” at the Barrington Stage Company here, during a recent Berkshires visit that also featured, 20 miles to the north at the Williamstown Theater Festival, Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Closet.” Different as they are — “The Cake” is intimate and touching, “The Closet” big and blaring — both set out to address timely issues of gay life and representation.

“The Cake,” which runs through Sunday, is not only more successful at that than “The Closet,” it’s more successful than the Supreme Court. Of course, that’s partly because the justices could not invent the facts of their case the way Brunstetter could. Her version, you might even say, is rigged: posing the problem in an extreme way to shift the focus from principles to people.

Della, the proprietor of Della’s Sweets in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is an adorable belle of a certain age whose personality and pink lemonade cake have earned her a spot on “The Great American Baking Show.” As played with immense warmth by Debra Jo Rupp, best known as the mother on “That ‘70s Show,” it’s all but impossible not to sympathize with her as she faces the televised challenge — and a real-life one that walks in the door of her shop.

That problem is Jen, who is no stranger (as in the Colorado case) but a giddy bridezilla whose late mother was Della’s best friend. At first, Della is ecstatic about the prospect of baking the cake for Jen’s upcoming wedding. But when Jen (Virginia Vale) awkwardly admits that there are two brides, not one, Della’s unexamined assumptions about the sanctity of traditional marriage are tested. Brunstetter, a playwright now working on NBC’s “This Is Us,” does not hesitate to stack the deck. Jen’s intended, Macy (Nemuna Ceesay), is a journalist who doesn’t eat cake and abhors “food TV” because it “fetishizes an industry that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people a year.” While Della is trying to work through her ambivalence, Macy helpfully explains that “ambivalence is just as evil as violence.”

This agenda-mongering heightens the conflict unnecessarily, turning Macy into a zealot you can hardly imagine the kind-at-all-costs Jen abiding. It also undermines some of Brunstetter’s efforts to give space to the Dellas of this world. Other stakes-raising techniques, involving surreal interruptions from the baking show and predictably serio-comic scenes with Della’s perplexed husband (Douglas Rees), are hit-or-miss.

Mostly, though, the play’s choices — and the lovely production, directed by Jennifer Chambers on Barrington’s smaller stage — cut against stereotypes, not going where you expect. (There’s no lawsuit.) In that way issues usually understood in legal terms become more personal matters of betrayal and accommodation. “The Cake” provides access to human questions at the heart of all change: How much time do we give people to “evolve”? How civil must we be while we wait?

Accommodating change is also at the heart of “The Closet,” a satire of post-gay political correctness that Williamstown is giving a deluxe production on its Main Stage. (It runs through Saturday.) Matthew Broderick plays — get ready for a shock — an emotionally flatlining nebbish: His wife has left him, his teenage son despises him and he’s so bad at his job that he’s about to be fired. To prevent the last of these, at least, he pretends to be gay.

Wait, what? It wasn’t so long ago that being openly gay would get you fired. But Beane, always alert to comic irony, has imagined a world so fearful of offense that a formerly despised identity is now a bulletproof vest. In any case, upon coming out, Martin suddenly becomes popular with his co-workers, a hero to his son and, all “Tootsie"-like, more comfortable with himself.

Beane borrows that idea from “Le Placard,” a 2001 movie and later a play by the French screenwriter and director Francis Veber. But “The Closet” abandons some of Veber’s logic in trying to pump itself into a socko farce. In the original, Broderick’s character, here called Martin O’Reilly, works for a condom manufacturer, thus making the firing of a gay employee a credibly sensitive matter. “The Closet,” though, is set in the Good Shepherd Catholic Supply Warehouse of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which provides the scenic designer Allen Moyer with a great visual opportunity but makes little sense otherwise.

Not much does. As has become his style in recent plays like “Shows for Days,” Beane focuses on amusing characters at the expense of coherence. That’s a serious failing when you’re building a farce. In “The Closet” he gives us, among other unlikely humans, Martin’s co-workers Patricia (Jessica Hecht), a wallflower who leads a “Hidden Words of Hate” workshop; Brenda (Ann Harada), a rude gossip who has musical-theater Tourette’s; and Roland (Will Cobbs), a homophobe with an all-too-predictable secret.

And then there’s Brooks Ashmanskas as Ronnie Wilde: Martin’s fake boyfriend and instructor in all things fey. The curriculum involves cinnamon and walking on Bubble Wrap.

Beane offers his usual hilarious zingers and, beneath the noise of Mark Brokaw’s busy yet torpid production, something to think about. Now that a gay man — or what Ronnie calls a “wonder homo” — is an important feature of every sitcom and social set, has the argument that “we are just like you,” with which we once argued for equal rights, become an albatross?

And now that everyone is special, are gay people (and gay plays) not?


Production Notes:

— ‘The Cake’

Through July 15 at Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass.; 413-236-8888, barringtonstageco.org.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

— ‘The Closet’

Through July 14 at the Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, Mass.; 413-458-3253, wtfestival.org.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.