Clybourne Park playwright Bruce Norris pens a controversial and searingly intelligent exploration of sex in America.
Men are not naturally monogamous. You'd think we would learn that after the parade of scandal-dogged politicians we've seen in the past decade: Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner. The familiar ritual of sexual dalliance followed by press leak followed by teary-eyed press conference in which the politician in flanked by his supportive wife (who soon after gets a book deal) has become so predictable, it is akin to commedia dell'arte. The political wife is a stock character. Bruce Norris, author of Pulitzer Prize winner Clybourne Park, explodes this formula in his radioactive new play Domesticated, now making its world premiere at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The shrapnel from this detonation is a series of increasingly difficult questions that challenges our conventional wisdom around sex, first and foremost: Who decided monogamy was a good idea?
Bill Pulver (Jeff Goldblum) is a wealthy and important politician who has recently resigned his office in the wake of a particularly tawdry affair: A 23-year-old prostitute named Becky (Aleque Reid) suffered a traumatic head injury during a session with Bill, leaving her in a vegetative state. Bill insists she accidentally fell and hit her head on the bed frame. Becky's mom, Jackie (Lizbeth Mackay), thinks she was pushed. Bill's wife, Judy (Laurie Metcalf), doesn't know what to think, but she's royally pissed off. His attorney, Bobbie (Mia Barron), thinks she can clear his name, but has a bad habit of drunkenly revealing more dirt to Judy in the process. (Attorney-client privilege?!?!) What will his two daughters, mouthy teen Casey (a sharp-tongued and truly odious Emily Meade) and shy Cambodian adoptee Cassidy (Misha Seo) make of all this? Bill watches his family explode in a storm of clementines and vomit, and that's all before the end of Act 1.
Norris writes with a Shakespearean scope, introducing new characters and locations with almost every scene. Director Anna D. Shapiro's economic direction keeps this epic train wreck steaming forward as set pieces and actors charge on and off. The play is staged in the round with minimal yet effective scenery by Todd Rosenthal. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes each tell a story on their own, indelibly informing the performances: Bill's suit is tailored far too small, making him appear like an adolescent who has outgrown his kiddie clothes.
Goldblum is captivating as Bill, capable of conveying so much without even speaking. (He does very little of that in the first half.) When he does speak, he unleashes a perfectly timed deluge of witty retorts and observations that are simultaneously brilliant and offensive. Is Judy, with her domineering rigidity, really culpable in him blowing nearly $100,000 on hookers? Metcalf delivers a deeply sympathetic performance. You want to be on her side, but you also feel a great deal of understanding for Bill. After all, he's outnumbered.
Norris has written 28 separate characters and only one, Bill, is a man. Among them is a head-shaking senior doctor (Mary Beth Peil) who thinks it is "just not the right idea" for Bill to go back to his old job as a gynecologist and a niqab-clad rape victim (Vanessa Aspillaga) who lectures Bill on why he is the reason America loses all its wars. The most biting satire of Oprah Winfrey I've seen onstage involves a talk-show host (Karen Pittman) cheerleading the nation in condemning Bill, opining, "A man can have a banquet spread out in front of him, and he goes digging in the trash."
The amount of slut-shaming in this play is breathtaking, and it's usually done in the name of "feminism." Remember, it's all women onstage. "Maybe you're gay," Casey nonsensically spits at her philandering father, like a viper unloading its venom. "[You] don't seem to like women very much." Is there an element within modern American feminism that is really just repackaged Puritanism? Eat your heart out, Hester Prynne.
Norris will undoubtedly be accused of misogyny, or at very least, speaking power to truth. Are wealthy white heterosexual male politicians really an oppressed class in America? Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, and Anthony Weiner are all still millionaires. Relatively speaking, they're doing fine. Yet it is the dramatist's prerogative to not necessarily endorse the views expressed in his play. They are views, however, that are widely held in this country where a rapidly transitioning economy (and not-as-quick-to-change social values) has completely warped the expectations placed on men: They should still be chivalrous toward women (ladies first), but women should also be treated equally. This inherent contradiction deserves reckoning, and Norris has given us that. This is no more evident than at the end of an epic rant in which Goldblum tells a room full of women to "go f*ck yourselves." Many of the men in the audience wore wide grins as the women sitting next to them looked perturbed.