How stringent a test of ones cringe muscles a Bruce Norris play requires. How physically taxing for the poor, guileless theatergoer. When the curtain falls one may even find the results of a light core workout, so necessarily squirmy the experience.
I winced and fidgeted throughout a preview of his new play, Domesticated, commissioned by and performed at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The snappy direction from Anna D. Shapiro (who helmed the Tony-winning August: Osage County) does a wonderful job of showcasing Norris’ ability to brutalize situational comedy.
The play begins with an all-too-familiar scene: a male public figure making a highly publicized apology, his wife standing mutely beside him, cameras flashing. From this point of ritualized humiliation we witness the more private dynamics between Bill and Judy Pulver (played by Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf), their daughters, their lawyer, their friends. Relationships here are clear and strained in different ways, but Norris is more concerned with throwing sex, politics, and gender norms into a pot and watching it stew. How vast, we wonder, is the disconnect between our biological functions and our Puritanical culture? What is the difference between monogamous fidelity and this nebulous thing we call love? Between males and females themselves?
These questions are posed and polarized throughout Domesticated, so it helps to have two powerhouse actors tugging us back and forth with their palpable, distinct humiliations. Lo, the weather of Laurie Metcalf’s face. Judy’s bitterness is always brimming behind a stoic glower; when spittle-flecked rage seems about to burst forth, the audience is ready, on tenterhooks. Hell hath no fury indeed. The Newhouse Theater is almost too small to contain Metcalf’s theatrical might.
Jeff Goldblum delightfully spends the majority of the first act silent, head bowed as his wife copes by governing his life. Norris’ examination of shame then shifts to Bill’s side of the story, as it were, in an act which includes several cringe-worthy monologues about cheating and female tyranny. Goldblum is at his best when gesticulating wildly about women being able to fertilize their own eggs: “You can now all, quite literally, go fuck yourselves!” His downward spiral is enjoyably pathetic, especially since he is the only man in the cast.
Well, the only man apart from Robin de Jesus, who appears in an all-too-brief scene in drag. His entrance, which follows a lengthy bar-side rambling from Bill, frustratingly does little more than introduce the idea that gender norms aren’t as clear-cut as we want them to be. This is one of several scenes that could use fleshing out, an opportunity for further poking and prodding at our collective myopia. The Pulvers’ biological daughter Casey (the spitfirey Emily Meade) is all righteous indignation and petulance, but her belief in women’s rights feels mocked when unexplored. Adopted daughter Cassidy (Misha Seo) speaks not a word to her family throughout the play, which culminates absurdly in the final scene’s throwaway line: her parents ask “Does she even speak English?”
Cassidy’s main function is to narrate the story’s transitions with meek monotony, describing the mating habits of various biological phenomena, as in a school presentation. Her increasingly ridiculous examples of male subordination serve a brilliantly scientific counterpoint to the emotional chaos happening centerstage.
Because Bill is so constantly, comically undermined by the women around him, we laugh with, rather than at, Domesticated‘s sardonically caricatured females. Norris’ text is at its most cynical when, for example, the family’s maid answers a phone in the middle of a climactic confrontation and mutters hilariously embarrassed Spanish into it. But in order to dissect an audience’s political correctness, one must write politically incorrect.
And why not? This is the kind of play that demands discussion and introspection and reassessment of the proverbial big picture. Mere weeks ago our government literally collapsed under the weight of its own dumbassery. A little Norrisean cynicism is welcome.
Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes, John Gromada’s sound design, and James F. Ingalls’ lighting are all impeccable. Anna D. Shapiro’s seamless direction thrives most when characters are in conflict; the show moves at a refreshingly brisk pace (this is no small feat considering it’s staged in the round, with film segments sprinkled throughout). The supporting cast is exemplary, especially Karen Pittman as an officious talk show host, and Mia Barron as the Pulvers’ friend and lawyer Bobbie. She’s all crisp efficiency until the moment she’s also implicated in Bill’s past philandering, a scene so horrifically awkward I had to bury my face in my hands.
Norris’ plays are this physically uncomfortable because they are intellectually uncomfortable. He revels unabashedly in scandal, in political mockery, in carving through societal norms like a butcher carves fat off a haunch of meat. Norris will exploit race, gender, sexuality – hell, even female circumcision – to up the stakes and connect the dots. That he does so with relish is his dramatic trademark. That he does so with such ease is his genius.
By Jack Smart