Playwright Bruce Norris cast a jaundiced eye on race and class in his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park.” With “Domesticated" a meaty new drama, he sifts through equally fertile soil -- gender and sexuality -- with nearly as satisfying results.
Commissioned by Lincoln Center, the play had its world premiere Monday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, with a cast led by stage stalwarts Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf at their best. It’s directed by Anna D. Shapiro, who also steered Broadway’s “August: Osage County.”
Performed in the round, “Domesticated” begins with a too-familiar episode: Goldblum’s Bill Pulver, a gynecologist-turned-politician (“Didn’t that tell you something,” a friend will later ask his humiliated wife) stands at a press conference, offering a contrite apology for an indiscretion. In this case, he hired a young call-girl, who either fell or was pushed during their encounter, and now lies hospitalized in a vegetative state. At his side -- cue Hillary, Huma and Silda -- is a stoic spouse, Judy (Metcalf, a Tony nominee for “The Other Place”).
Goldblum speaks during this first scene, but won’t get in a word again until the last minutes of the first act; it’s so much fun simply to watch him react while the women take charge of matters. Bill mouths off plenty during the second act, and it earns him a detached retina from an offended bar patron (Robin De Jesus, of “In the Heights,” is ferocious in a brief but winning turn).
With a first act focusing on Judy, and a second on Bill, Norris presents an argument we’ll cautiously accede to: women are attracted to power; men, to physical appearances. His “Clybourne Park” may be more polished (matters here in the second act go a bit askew during a confrontation between Bill and Judy), but with “Domesticated,” Norris is asking equally provocative questions: Is promiscuity a man’s destiny? Are men, today, just domesticated animals? Do women need them at all?
Though Bill’s behavior spurs the action -- Goldblum is our go-to-guy for playing angsty, overprivileged, misogynistic men -- it’s Metcalf who does the heavy dramatic lifting, channeling much the same persona she did in “The Other Place.” Her Judy is detached, frenetic and stressed to the point of developing TMJ. Can there possibly be a Hillary-esque rebound on her horizon?
In supporting roles, Mia Barron is fine as the attractive attorney and old family friend lined up to help Bill cut his losses. Emily Meade is a standout as the estranged married couple’s university-bound daughter, who says things that, in characteristic Norris fashion, seem designed to stun: “Just add it to what you owe me for my college tuition,” she sneers at her dad, after footing the bill when his credit card is declined.
Fans of the TV drama "The Good Wife," a show inspired by the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal, will enjoy the wink-wink casting here of Mary Beth Peil as Bill's mother (one of four roles she plays in "Domesticated"). On the CBS show, Peil plays Jackie Florrick, the meddlesome mother of Chris Noth's philandering politician.
The minimalist drama works well in the round. Set designer Todd Rosenthal has a bank of monitors above the stage, where we see a TV talk show host (Karen Pittman, delightfully exploitative) interview Judy and the mother of the hooker (Lizbeth Mackay). Periodically, we break from events to hear Cassidy (Misha Seo, nice), Bill and Judy’s younger daughter, narrate academic video about the mating habits of various animal species, which inevitably depict the weakness of men in nature.
Of one “polychaete marine annelid,” Cassidy explains: “He is born and dies without ever venturing outside of the female body … and, in successive generations, will almost certainly disappear altogether.”
Men may eventually be unnecessary to the survival of certain animal species, but as human sexual beings, we're here to stay. We all sometimes bring different expectations to intimate encounters, but Norris deftly avoids leaving us with the idea that Bill is strictly a villain in this scenario. In fact, I challenge any man to experience the final scenes of “Domesticated” -- surely Broadway-bound -- without feeling threatened, marginalized and diminished himself. That’s a nod to the sharp writing and excellent acting in this new piece.
“Domesticated,” on sale through Jan. 5, 2014, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St. Tickets: $77-$87. Visit Telecharge.com or LCT.org.
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