Everybody has heard of "frottage," right? That's when you rub up against something to achieve sexual satisfa— Wait. Are you not familiar with this concept? Well, by the end of Intimacy, Thomas Bradshaw's bracingly funny but overly salacious new play, currently being presented by Scott Elliot and off-Broadway’s New Group, you will, having witnessed various examples involving both human genitalia and stuffed animals.
Bradshaw is considered in theater circles to be something of a provocateur. After all, this is an author who wrote a play (Purity) in which a pair of college professors journeys to Ecuador with the express purpose of raping a nine-year-old girl. That was followed up with Burning (a 2011 New Group production), a drama that featured a Nazi digitally stimulating his paraplegic sister in the bathtub, and later, a gay couple who adopts a teenage hustler after they take turns sleeping with him. And we can’t forget about Job, his gory and violent take on the biblical "Book of."
Shell-shocked audience members may find these plays to be provocative for the sake of being provocative, but Bradshaw aims to confront people with the things they find most vile in order to illustrate society’s more unseemly truths. In Intimacy he riffs on the time-tested trope that people do really weird stuff behind closed doors. Like letting their strange sexual predilections run their life.
The first act, set in a trio of neighboring homes, introduces us to a plethora of characters with deep, dirty secrets. In the first house, 17-year-old aspiring filmmaker Matthew (Austin Cauldwell) lives with his widowed father, James (Daniel Gerroll), a born-again Christian with a humiliating addiction to masturbating. Across the way, Jerry and Pat (Keith Randolph Smith and Laura Esterman), a biracial couple in a December-May romance, live with their daughter, Janet (Ella Dershowitz), a fetching 18-year-old who happens to be an adult-film actress. Farther down the road is Honduran contractor Fred (David Anzuelo), his absent wife who spends day and night working at Walmart, and their bright 17-year-old daughter, Sarah (Déa Julien).
A budding romance between Matthew and Sarah, and her refusal to have sex until prom night, sets the play in motion when they discover frottage as an alternate way to pleasure each another. Meanwhile, the multi-Ph.D.’d Jerry must come to terms with the fact that his beautiful daughter gets paid to pleasure herself for the enjoyment of others, including the bible-quoting James. As for Fred, he might have an attraction to his daughter’s new boyfriend. And that’s just the first act.
As a playwright, Bradshaw has a hard time joining multiple crisscrossing story lines as one. Despite hilarious, wildly unexpected, and super-smart dialogue, the first act lacks a point of view, a shortcoming that isn't helped by Elliott's tonally confused direction (drama? comedy? farce?) and a single Derek McLane set that is meant to convey multiple locations but that is really just a living room and a bedroom. The second act, in which all the characters finally have a single goal to achieve, fares better, if only because there is a clear perspective and tone (sex farce).
Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is in the casting. Elliott (who also serves as the costume designer) has cast a handful of actors who flat out don’t look comfortable doing what the play requires them do to, a long list of things that includes stripping completely nude, masturbating, fellating, and ejaculating. Only Esterman, Smith, and Dershowitz seem to be really at peace with performing the tasks at hand, and they don’t exactly get off easy. In the play’s single most shocking moment, Janet strides onstage completely nude, sits next to her father, and encourages him to pleasure himself to her photo in a girly mag.
Obviously, Intimacy isn’t for the faint of heart, and if you sit in a particular seat in the front row, you have a very good shot of getting drenched with what one can only hope is soy milk. You’ve been warned.