Bruce Norris' pulverizing comedy plumbs matters of monogamy and marriage.
When it premiered at Lincoln Center in 2013, Bruce Norris' Domesticated was steeped in the muscular, emotionally raw sensibility of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Norris is an ensemble member at the famed, Chicago-based company. So is Laurie Metcalf, who starred in the pitch-black comedy as the wife of a politician (Jeff Goldblum) caught in a sex scandal so icky it made you want to take (to paraphrase Norris' dialogue) a bottle Clorox and a steel wool pad to the leading man's private parts.
Now Domesticated has landed at Steppenwolf itself, with Norris directing a production that stars ensemble member Tom Irwin as the spectacularly self-destructive Bill Pulver and Mary Beth Fisher as his wife, Judy. The piece hasn't lost an iota of its feral savagery or blistering humor. It's a scathing indictment of a familiar type: Men with the impulse control of infants and the libidos of 16-year-olds. But it's also a rumination on monogamy and biology – and whether the latter makes the former untenable in Homo sapiens.
Bill Pulver is a renowned gynecologist, and elected official – as well as a petulant manchild who spends his office hours perusing websites like Teenage Camel Toe, and his afterhours with prostitutes dressed up as naughty school girls. His downfall comes when the young dominatrix he's hired winds up in a coma following an accident involving a paddle.
Much of the piece's impact comes from Norris' ability to take a highly specific situation and, through it, reflect the hubris of an entire population. In this case, it's Bill Pulver standing in for the males of the animal kingdom. Norris frames the story with a school presentation by Pulver's young daughter, Cassidy (Emily Chang). Cassidy begins her report talking about the showy, aggressive dominance of a breed of male fowl. Traveling down the food chain, she ends her report with a description of a deep-sea species wherein the male is nothing but a parasitic microbe unable to exist outside the body of the female. Bill's devolution might not be quite so dramatic, but the parallel is brutal and clear.
Cassidy's scholastic presentation and Bill's life collide with fantastic impact in an 11th-hour monologue wherein Bill goes off on a bemused bartender about how men will soon be rendered biologically useless. It's the exclamation point to a rant so misogynistic it'll make you gasp, and so funny it will leave you in stitches. Irwin delivers it with a pitch-perfect blend of bruised ego and childish petulance.
The scene provides a jarring contrast to the meek, shamefaced, utterly silent Bill Pulver of the first act. As his wife, lawyer, and children rain torrents of well-deserved disgust and anger on him, Bill doesn't make a peep. He might not be actually wearing a hair shirt, but his role as a penitent is abundantly clear.
Fisher unearths layer after layer of pain and incredulity as her husband's tally of infidelities proves that while the comatose prostitute might have been a one-time tragedy, Bill's predilection for prostitutes is not.
Fisher and Irwin form the nexus of the piece, but they're surrounded by a razor-sharp ensemble. Beth Lacke plays a piranha of an attorney whose successful practice can't quite cover up her own indiscretions. Mildred Marie Langford nails the pandering shallowness and false compassion of a talk show host mining ratings gold from the story of an small-town innocent tragically corrupted by the evil ways of powerful men in the big city. And as the comatose girl's mother, Karen Janes Woditsch depicts a woman with her own decided knack for emotional manipulation.
Todd Rosenthal's spacious set puts the audience in the school gymnasium where Cassidy gives her report. The versatile environment morphs into other key locales: A fancy fundraiser for ovarian cancer, the Pulver's dining room, the bar where Bill lays down his manifesto.
Norris is far too intelligent to giftwrap a tidy ending for his audience. Instead, he leaves things tantalizingly ambiguous. What happens ever after is hardly the point here. Instead, you're left puzzling over whether monogamy is simply too much to expect from mankind. The biological imperative at work within Bill's DNA seems to argue against long-term fidelity. The trick is to manage it without putting a barely legal sex worker into a coma.