Saturday, October 26, 2013

'Domesticated’: Backstabbing, American Style

Playwright Bruce Norris, who most effectively skewered issues of racial politics in his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play Clybourne Park a couple of years back, has turned his eye toward a new target—that of gender politics—in Domesticated, now on view at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

Domesticated gives us Norris’s take on the war between the sexes in a way that places the play in a most interesting juxtaposition to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, currently in revival on Broadway (link to review here). 

Both deal with infidelity. But whereas Pinter’s approach is to peel back the characteristically British layers of reserve and repression to reveal the pain beneath the surface, Norris opts for the American in-your-face route, where emotions and opinions are out there for everyone to inhale like so much second-hand smoke.   

Mr. Norris has drawn his inspiration from the sexual shenanigans of real-life public figures like Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, and Eliot Spitzer. In doing so, he has run the risk of offering up an evening’s entertainment that could be viewed as little more than an all-too-easy comedy skit. The truth is, there is a good bit of that (how could there not be, given the target?), but Domesticated is also a provocative work about the inability of men and women to ever understand one another.  

As the play opens, we find ourselves listening to a dry presentation by a teenage girl, Cassidy (Misha Seo), who is showing slides of various representations of sexual dimorphism within the animal kingdom.  She will continue to do this at several points during the play, providing more and more unusual examples that serve to make sly reference to her “men are from Mars; women are from Venus” adoptive parents, the clueless and self-justifying Bill (Jeff Goldblum) and the hell-hath-no-fury Judy (Laurie Metcalf). 

The very first scene following the brief slide show is one that will be quite familiar to pretty much anyone who owns a television set.  Bill, a physician-turned-politician, is holding one of those confessional press conferences with his loyal wife at his side.  It seems that a prostitute with whom he was having an assignation lies in a coma brought on by a head injury she sustained while she and Bill were together—and covering it up is not an option.    

Judy’s silent show of support quickly dissipates when the pair are alone and more details of his escapades emerge, including the fact that he has been a long-time customer of the sex-for-hire industry.  Bill, who is inordinately gifted at finding ways to make a bad situation worse, rationalizes that he has lied about everything out of respect for Judy.  Later, when he is forced to step down from office and cannot find work as a physician (he is, ironically, a gynecologist, unlikely to engender much trust from any would-be patients) Judy suggests he can always find work as a pimp—a bitter but very funny line when delivered with Ms. Metcalf’s perfect timing.

Throughout all of these travails, Bill is not only castigated by his wife, but also by the couple’s other daughter, Casey (Emily Meade), an avowed women’s rights advocate with a teenager’s unerring capacity for holding her parents accountable to an unreachable level of perfection.  Between Judy and Casey, Bill does not get to utter another word until the end of the first act, when he declares he is leaving because he is “not happy.”  (Mr. Goldblum does a stellar job of expressing himself through pained facial expressions during the long period of his character’s enforced silence).

If Judy has her say in first half of the play, Act II belongs to Bill, who seems to have taken as his role model the totally clueless idiot played by Larry David in the long-running HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Bill tries to make a life for himself, even managing to talk his way into a low-paying job at a medical clinic.  But he spends much of the time shooting off his mouth, and subsequently shooting himself in the foot as well, as a self-appointed guardian of men in their never-ending battle with “women!” 

This is not a play that ends with any great breakthrough or epiphanies.  In the end, Bill and Judy share a ceasefire, which may as good as it will ever get. 

In the capable hands of Ms. Metcalf and Mr. Goldblum, as well as the rest of the excellent cast and director Anna D. Shapiro, Domesticated is a strong follow-up to Clybourne Park, in which cluelessness, misunderstanding, and miscommunication also served to trip up the best efforts of the characters to get along.  Perhaps this is Mr. Norris’s great strength as a playwright, the ability to help us to see how difficult it is for any of us to empathize with those who are dissimilar—in terms of race, gender, socio-economic status, or any other cultural indicator. 

Wonder what he could do with the red/blue political divide that has ensnared this nation in recent years. 

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