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Holidays, suburbia, the closet again on stage in tired coming out formula

Perhaps it’s a sign of progress in the fight for gay civil rights, but coming out never looked like such a non-event as it does in “The Closet Chronicles,” another entirely forgettable entry in the increasingly bloated annals of unpleasant contemporary gay theater.

The play opens as the Angell family sits down to Thanksgiving dinner in their comfortable suburban Cincinnati home. The action is narrated by teenager Agatha (Emilie Madison), who watches with both disgust and fascination as her brother George (Brandon Malone), visiting from college, announces to his mother Nancy (Marilyn Sokol) and father Ed (Richard Leighton) that he’s gay.

After ladling out predictable scenes consisting mostly of George reacting to his parents’ shock at his coming out, the first act ends with the introduction of George’s African American boyfriend, played by Ben Hersey, who literally emerges from a closet (intimations of “Norman, Is That You?” overshadowing the proceedings).

From then on the play takes ridiculously silly turns, including unfunny detours to a “Gay No More” ex-gay clinic (the appointment was a well-intentioned Christmas gift from the parents) and, as the play comes to a close, church on Easter Sunday.

Eventually, after George’s boyfriend turns out to be less than faithful, the mom, dad, and sis learn to embrace George’s homosexuality and this kooky family sits down for a peaceful holiday meal. PFLAG couldn’t have crafted a more kid-glove, tied-with-a-bow ending.

I don’t know if playwright Eric R. Pfeffinger is gay, but his play, which is making its New York City premiere, has the feel of an autobiography, especially in the few scenes that actually click. When Nancy speculates she would sleep with Tina Turner if she absolutely had to choose a woman to bed, it’s worth a chuckle.

When such amusing moments occur—and they are rare—gay people who have experienced the bittersweet pangs of returning home to reveal their homosexuality, especially those from suburban America, will find that Pfeffinger’s script can hit close to home.

If you’ve ever faced a brooding teen sister, the uncertainty of where the boyfriend will sleep, or a parent’s insistence on using the word “friend” instead of “boyfriend,” you may smile with recognition at the familial song-and-dance at play on stage.

But “The Closet Chronicles” primarily stumbles on its dreadfully weak script. Pfeffinger tackles that old fuddy-duddy topic of a young gay man’s coming out with a pen that leaks repetitious jokes, stale caricatures, and bad sitcom-level sensitivity, deadening his characters every time they open their mouths.

In essence, Pfeffinger has penned a script that skirts around the kind of territory mined mores sharply by playwright Nicky Silver in shows like “Fit To Be Tied” and “The Food Chain.”

Silver’s mothers, confused gay sons, and overweight lovers circle each other with a darkly comic mix of fear and loathing, which lend his plays a funny edginess.

In contrast, Pfeffinger’s characters giggle at the words “screw” and “fetish” and refer to the Castro and the “gay Mafia” as if the words alone are funny.

Like “The Birdcage,” a movie that kept coming into my head with every passing minute, “The Closet Chronicles” is basically a show for straight people who don’t get out much.

Director Ben Hodges does the best he can with such paltry resources, maintaining an even pace when the temptation to crank up the action must have been overwhelming.

The stage direction most clearly missteps with the delightfully mousy Sokol, a gifted comedienne whose talents Hodges reins in when they should be let loose.

The dopey Malone looks the part of a young gay man jumping into a gay abyss. But in practice he musters up all the energy of a Burger King employee asking your preference for fries or onion rings.

Madison, Leighton, Hersey, and Jason Cicci, in the thankless role of a closeted ex-gay instructor, are satisfactory in roles that call for nothing more.

David Esler’s busybody set is a pitch-perfect recreation of a suburban home, right down to the lace-trimmed curtains and provincial artwork. But it completely overwhelms the tiny and overheated Ground Floor Theater, heightening the cramped black box’s already queasy claustrophobia.

While not a disaster, “The Closet Chronicles” is still a dismally unfunny show that, in a strangely hopeful storytelling twist, provides evidence that coming out may be the most boring thing a gay person can do.

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