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NEW YORK – What Bruce Norris did for prickly attitudes surrounding race in his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Clybourne Park, the playwright does for similarly irreconcilable issues of gender politics in Domesticated. While not as incisive or ingeniously structured as the earlier work, this is a tart, provocative comedy of the most corrosive kind, driven by scathingly funny dialogue. Anna D. Shapiro’s super-streamlined production for Lincoln Center Theater boasts a terrific cast, with a superbly matched Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf facing off as the warring husband and wife under a sticky spotlight.
The dynamic of a politician humiliated by exposure of his extramarital transgressions, and the wronged wife who stands dutifully by his side — at least in public — has become a familiar one. As we watch the distinguished-looking Bill (Goldblum), dressed in a sober suit and tie, struggle through the obligatory mea culpa press conference while his consort, Judy (Metcalf), looks on with unreadable stoicism, names such as Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton inevitably come to mind, along with those of fictional characters like Peter Florrick on The Good Wife.
But Norris is less interested in political and professional fallout than in what happens behind closed doors to the couple and to the people close to them, and the urges that prompted Bill to slap down a wad of cash for a young hooker specializing in schoolgirl role-play. Lust is of course the chief reason, but the playwright digs deeper to consider the fundamental problems men have with monogamy. The title itself suggests that Bill and others like him have been cornered by societal expectations into behavior that goes against human nature. Not that Norris is letting anyone off the hook.
The playwright adds a layer of mock-scientific commentary to his observations via a high school biology presentation given by Bill and Judy’s adopted Cambodian daughter, Cassidy (Misha Seo). Using video elements that provide droll punctuation to the play, Cassidy examines sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom. Starting with the common pheasant, whose polygynous males have half the life span of females, she progresses through more radical examples of female superiority, ending with a bottom-feeding marine worm whose useless dwarf male never gets beyond larval stage. Ouch.
While Cassidy has zero communication with her parents, their biological daughter, Casey (Emily Meade), can’t keep her mouth shut. Politicized and highly opinionated, she’s as vocal about her father’s misdemeanors and her mother’s bitter accommodations as she is about female genital mutilation in Africa. Your basic angry teenage nightmare, she’s also a hilariously drawn character, played with real fire by Meade, whose experience is primarily in film and TV.
In the first act, Bill is shamed into virtual silence, weeping or cowering as Judy ices him out. Barely suppressing her rage, she ignores her husband’s dinner table sobbing by asking Cass about field hockey, while crisply informing Bill that she is not ready for the discussion stage. Judy outlines instead how little use she had for the denial stage, finding the drinking stage (also the monologue stage) far more rewarding as a prelude to the possible stabbing stage. Tracing Judy’s steady accumulation of indignation as she absorbs each fresh outrage, Metcalf is at her acerbic best, becoming more and more unyielding.
Their meetings with Bill’s attorney, Bobbie (Mia Barron), who is also Judy’s best friend, reveal his long history of sexual peccadilloes with the ghastly glee of a horror comedy. We also learn the circumstances of his undoing as the hooker (Aleque Reid) lies hospitalized in a coma while the girl’s Midwestern mother (Lizbeth Mackay) is interviewed on television. Karen Pittman does a wicked Oprah Winfrey, spiced with a dash of Barbara Walters, as the patronizing talk-show personality who manipulatively packages every required emotional response along with the question.
The fact that Bill came to prominence as a gynecologist, dedicating his professional life to women’s health issues before moving into an unspecified political office, serves to darken the comedy.
The second-act focus shifts to the shamed offender as he slaps a Band-Aid on his bruised self-esteem and pipes up in his own defense, usually to an audience that doesn’t care to hear it. Bill’s bar rant on man’s naturally promiscuous instincts is full of choice nuggets. You can even hear vague male murmurs of recognition in the theater as he petulantly describes the 90-degree shift of affection that occurs in a marriage after childbirth.
This kind of abrasive character — equal parts arrogant and infantile — is Goldblum’s sweet spot. He plays Bill not only with the relish to find every note of humor, but also with an almost endearing cluelessness every time his foot-in-mouth disorder gets him deeper into trouble. The more Bill strives to salvage his reputation, the more pathetic he becomes, while Judy’s efforts to repair her dignity push her further into livid isolation. What remains of their damaged relationship is left open to interpretation in the final scene.
Norris makes a lot of interesting points about the lapses and trade-offs that occur when romantic love makes way for familial responsibility. He’s also laser-like in his targeting of a specific class of well-heeled public figures who pursue success and make a show of their philanthropic beneficence while learning to live quite comfortably with their private hypocrisies.
Though the setup is terrific, the play doesn’t quite deliver the punch it promises and feels perhaps a draft or two away from its ideal form. A couple of scenes, in particular, ring false. One involves Bobbie, who is played with such hilarious hyper-efficiency and absence of emotion by Barron that when she slips up and reveals compromising information after a few drinks, it seems out of character. And the playwright shows his hand too obviously by having Bill get his comeuppance from a transgender bar customer (Robin De Jesus) who challenges his preconceptions about women.
But Norris is such a sharp observer of contemporary mores and moral ambiguities that Domesticated remains ripely entertaining throughout, with not a weak performance in the bunch. (The cast includes Mary Beth Peil of The Good Wife, bringing her delicious wit to another all-forgiving mother of the philanderer.) Shapiro’s tight direction eliminates any trace of dead air between scene changes, and Todd Rosenthal’s spare set evokes the idea of both a television studio debate forum and a gladiatorial arena.
Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, New York (runs through Jan. 5)
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Laurie Metcalf, Vanessa Aspillaga, Mia Barron, Robin De Jesus, Lizbeth Mackay, Emily Meade, Mary Beth Peil, Karen Pittman, Aleque Reid, Misha Seo
Director: Anna D. Shapiro
Playwright: Bruce Norris
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting designer: James F. Ingalls
Sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
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