“Intimacy,” the latest provocation by Thomas Bradshaw, begins with promise and ends in pornography.
A fresh-faced teenager, Matthew (Austin Caldwell), delivers a heartfelt monologue about his father , who has been grieving the death of his mother. Matthew played the piano because his mother wanted him to, but now that she’s died he feels his real passion is in filmmaking.
For the next half hour or so, we meet the rest of the characters, seven in all, who are members of three families. They are neighbors in some unnamed suburb, and are seen side by side on the stage, sitting on couches, lounging on chairs, watching television.
The early scenes seem nearly wholesome, and realistic, with just a hint of sexuality – two of the couples talk about a third who had an open relationship, for example.
In the first scene to escalate into something you don’t normally see on a New York stage, Matthew is watching through binoculars as his neighbor’s daughter Janet (Ella Dershowitz) parades naked in her bedroom. Matthew then masturbates, and not under the covers.
Janet, we soon learn, is a model for pornographic magazines, one of which Matthew’s father James (Daniel Gerroll) has in his possession.
From there, “Intimacy” eventually evolves into out-and-out pornography (or should I say in-and-out?), with Matthew realizing that the kind of film he wants to make is a pornographic one, and enlisting all the neighbors to participate.
At this point, I have to suspect that Bradshaw is playing a mean joke on the audience, especially critics, since he’s more or less forcing theatergoers to be open-minded, ho-hum, in-on-the-joke, and requiring theater reviewers to describe pornographic doings. First, of course, we must assess whether “Intimacy” is pornography, since it has all the trappings of legitimate theater – Bradshaw, a professor of theater at Northwestern University, is a skilled dramatic craftsman; his play is being presented on Theatre Row, directed by New Group Theater’s artistic director Scott Elliott and designed by such top-notch Broadway talent as Derek McLane; it features a cast mostly of veterans of Off-Broadway. Still, using the test established by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in determining obscenity – “I know it when I see it” – I would judge that, yes, “Intimacy” is pornographic.
So then, by what standards should we judge “Intimacy”? Is it titillating? Does it provide enlivening jolts? Is there something insightful here about what regular people do behind closed doors, or satirically satisfying, or amusing?
The answer for me to all those questions ranges from “no” to “not enough.”
“Intimacy” recalls “The Performers,” the short-lasting Broadway play that pretended to take a look at the pornography industry; it too was billed as a comedy, and it was dreadful. But there are several concrete differences. “Intimacy” is supposed to look at amateurs who become pornographers, rather than industry professionals, a difference without a distinction. Unlike the burlesque-like “The Performers” stuffed with dopey one-liners, “Intimacy” begins with what seem initially to be realistic characters, and there is something thought-provoking about Bradshaw’s manipulation of his characters, turning them from credible individuals to pornographic types, as if he’s saying: This is what now parades as “intimacy.” But any attempt to find the kernel of meaning in this play feels crushed by its explicitness. There was no sex in “The Performers,” not even any nudity. The sex in “Intimacy” might be simulated sex – those might be prosthetic penises; the visible ejaculate is certainly an artificial concoction — but it’s pretty damn realistic-looking. And supplementing the stage doings is actual footage from pornographic films on the video monitor.
It is very clear by the end that what started as a play has evolved into a mock pornographic film, complete with the overly loud pounding music, and the complete lack of reality in the characters’ lives. I say mock, because it’s on a stage. Bradshaw, whose overly explicit adaptation of Job I detested while others acclaimed it cutting-edge theater, may be up to something here that I’m not sophisticated enough to understand, or desensitized enough to enjoy.
at Theatre Row
By William Bradshaw
Directed by Scott Elliott
Scenic design by Derek McLane, costume design by Scott Elliott, lighting design by Russell Champa, video deisgn by Olivia Sebesky, sound design by Shane Rettig, fight director, David Anzuelo
Cast: David Anzuelo, Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz, Laura Esterman, Daniel Gerroll, Déa Julien and Keith Randolph Smith.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Intimacy is set to run through March 8.