“Domesticated,” Bruce Norris’s comedy about the aftermath of a political sex scandal, stars Jeff Goldblum as the politician and Laurie Metcalfe as his wife, but the clue to assessing this play is the casting of Mary Beth Peil as the philandering politician’s mother — the exact same role she plays in The Good Wife, a television series that began as the aftermath of a political sex scandal, but has moved on to more complex and interesting issues.
“Domesticated” sticks to sex. It is apparently Norris’s attempt to offer what he sees as the kind of inconvenient truths about our attitudes towards sex as he did about our attitudes towards race in Clybourne Park, his clever riff and update on the classic Lorraine Hansberry play “A Raisin in the Sun,” which won for Norris both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize (neither of which, rather irksomely, Lorraine Hansberry ever won.) “Domesticated” offers us nothing all that new, interesting or complex about the battle of the sexes, but it presents it in the gift-wrapping of some first-rate performers.
Goldblum is Bill Purvis, whom we first see at the now obligatory and iconic press conference, flashbulbs popping, his wife Judy (Metcalfe) by his side, as he resigns from his (unspecified) office.
In a slight twist on the usual scandal, the 23-year-old hooker with whom he had a dalliance is now in a coma. Her mother and the assistant district attorney accuse Bill of pushing her; he contends that, while holding a sex toy/paddle, she fell and hit her head on a chair.
Bill is surrounded by women – as is Goldblum. The 11-member cast includes only one other man, Robin De Jesus, playing a transsexual who, like nearly everybody else, confronts Bill over his insensitivity to women. Bill is a besieged man – if not Besieged Man – and he is nearly silent and seemingly guilt-ridden the entire first act. In the second act, though, he rarely shuts up, and we quickly learn that he is not, in fact, repentant at all. He’s never bought into monogamy. He recalls his wedding: “I’m standing at the altar in some rented tuxedo thinking, what am I, a salmon? I’m supposed to mate once and then die?”
The reference to another species echoes the only occasionally successful conceit threaded throughout “Domesticated.” His youngest daughter Cassidy (Misha Seo) only speaks when she is presenting a school report, complete with (G-rated) slides and videos, about the unusual mating habits of various of earth’s species, from hyenas to pheasants to zombie worms. The zombie worm, Cassidy tells us in a monotone, lives deep in the sea; the microscopic males of the species inhabit the body of the much larger female; in the future, Cassidy, tells us, the male zombie worms “will certainly disappear altogether.”
Norris makes his point early and often, as he fills up the two acts and two hours of “Domesticated.” In a running joke, Judy increasingly discovers just what a lout Bill has been, and the full extent of her naivete (”You married a gynecologist,” her best friend tells her. “A gynecologist who went into politics. Didn’t that tell you something?”) Bill and Judy’s teenage daughter Casey (Emily Meade) becomes even more snarky and impossible after the scandal than she was beforehand. Judy writes a book, appears on an Oprah-like talk show. Bill is unsuccessful in his attempt to return to his old job. Judy and Bill have an explicit argument over their sex lives. The legal case advances with a dud of a twist. All of this Anna D. Shapiro directs smoothly enough in-the-round at the Mitzi Newhouse. (Perhaps the arena seating was an attempt to make the conflict feel more like a battle or a sport?) The director makes the most of Norris’ one-liners and his knack for creating playable scenes where characters speak at one another without listening to one another. Goldblum and Metcalf in particular handle the comic and the serious scenes with the impressive dexterity we have come to expect from both.
In his rat-a-tat dialogue and his proud effort at being politically incorrect, Bruce Norris can feel like Mamet with a sense of humor. But as with the later Mamet, many in the audience will wonder what it all amounts to.
Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center
By Bruce Norris; directed by Anna D. Shapiro; sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting by James F. Ingalls; sound by John Gromada.
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga (Pilar), Mia Barron (Bobbie), Robin De Jesus (Bar Patron), Jeff Goldblum (Bill), Lizbeth Mackay (Jackie), Emily Meade (Casey), Laurie Metcalf (Judy), Mary Beth Peil (Shrink), Karen Pittman (A.D.A.), Aleque Reid (Becky) and Misha Seo (Cassidy).
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Domesticated is set to run though January 5.