A closet: It holds our clothing. Our bedsheets. Our old notebooks. And in some cases, our secrets.
For the characters of In the Closet, a play by Siegmund Fuchs, the closet offers a literal escape. In the show, four gay men ages 18 to 65 open up about their struggles—including a first sexual encounter, ageism, rape, and the imminent death of a partner—all from inside a closet.
"This two hours is with these characters when they're each individually scared about something, trying to find solace in something that was comforting them when they were closeted a long time ago," Fuchs says.
Billed as a “metaphysical comedy,” the play, a world-premiere production by Rainbow Theatre Project opening this week at the District of Columbia Arts Center, is an endeavor Fuchs began in the late 1990s, abandoned, and then completed in 2015.
“The idea was,” Fuchs says, “can I create a new coming-out story that is compelling and interesting enough so that at the end of the show, when this character decides to open up that door” the audience is invested?
When H. Lee Gable, producing artistic director of Rainbow Theatre Project, read the script in 2016, he says he found it very relatable. And in the way it hops around in time and lives in an extended metaphor, he says it's a bit like the avant-garde work of Waiting for Godot playwright Samuel Beckett.
“It’s not a straight, linear play,” says Gable, who directs In the Closet and launched the LGBTQ-focused Rainbow Theatre Project in 2013 with managing director Michael Kelley.
Fuchs, 41, a D.C.-based lawyer for the Department of Justice, says that by the late 1990s, the catalogue of LGBTQ-focused theater was loaded with AIDS and coming-out stories, yet he still saw a need for his piece. He began writing In the Closet before law school, and set it aside for more than a decade while his career picked up, a job he pursued in part to financially support his playwriting.
Around 2012, when Fuchs was searching for a way to resume his writing, he returned to In the Closet. “And [I] thought, ‘You know, this is a pretty decent idea,’” he recalls. He completed the play in 2015.
In the Closet, which has had only a handful of public readings and workshop performances, won the Carol Weinberg Award for Best Play at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival and was the winner of the New Works Festival at Denver’s Historic Elitch Theatre, both in 2016. As part of its "rolling world premiere," an inter-theater arrangement that allows a play to premiere in multiple locations within a 12-month period, the show debuted as a full production last fall at Cleveland’s Convergence-Continuum theater.
Patrick Joy, 23, plays the youngest man in In the Closet, who rushes into the closet immediately after his first sexual encounter with a man. Joy, who identifies as straight, says he can relate to the bewilderment his character faces.
“It’s a person being thrust into an unfamiliar situation, one that they are not prepared for and one that they wish they didn’t have to do,” Joy says. “And for me, that’s high school. For me, that’s going to a party.”
Though Fuchs says there are light, comedic notes in the play, it also has its darker moments—including a discussion about the rape of an older character. Fuchs drew on what he learned early in his legal career, when he researched and wrote about male sexual assault.
Fuchs says others have challenged him on the relevancy of a coming-out story in 2018, an era when gay Americans can get married, can openly serve in the military, and are the stars-turned-celebrities of TV shows such as the Queer Eye reboot. Yet he says his play still bears some critical messages, including inspiring viewers to offer kindness to someone who is hurting.
“We kind of live in a bubble in D.C., because it’s just so accepted here,” Fuchs says. “But there’s still a lot of people in between these two coasts that are struggling with it, and it’s not safe for them to come out.”
And as for being openly gay in today’s Washington D.C., the city with the highest rate of people who self-identify as LGBT in the country? Gable, who identifies as gay, says it’s not as simple as one might think.
“Even when we’re out, we’re not always out all the time,” Gable says. “If I was going to walk down the street with another man, and I want to hold his hand, I’m going to look around to see who else is on the street and [ask], ‘Is it safe or am I going to run into problems?’ So for those 10 seconds that I did that, I went back in the closet. ... I don’t think straight people do that.”