New York Theater Review: “Domesticated” — Morally Untenable

What feels absent in Bruce Norris’s “Domesticated” is some sort of moral center to its familiarly skewed, down-sliding spiral of relationships.

Domesticated by Bruce Norris. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, New York.

Jeff Goldblum in "Domesticated." Photo: Joan Marcus

Jeff Goldblum in “Domesticated.” Photo: Joan Marcus

By Joann Green Breuer

Tom Lehrer wisely remarked that satire became redundant after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. One might say the same of Domesticated, a fitfully comedic take on the sexual wanderlust of an American politician and its effects on his beleaguered family. After Sanford, Spitzer, Filner, Wiener, and, depressingly, many others, any artistic rendering of such distasteful dalliances had better have something to say, and say it well. At least, one had better better The Good Wife.

Bruce Norris, the playwright of Clybourne Park, his (mostly) critically acclaimed (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) mirror image of A Raisin in the Sun, has an eye and ear for American sociological fallibility and an urge to make an honest American argument. The problem with Domesticated is that we have heard a lot of the rhetoric already. The humor with which Norris tempers the argument is hearty enough, but an hour later one is hungry for regret.

Director Anna D. Shapiro stages the action in a tight arc into which minimal but apt furnishings are well whisked, keeping the pace and plot on an express track. Lighting designer James F. Ingalls illuminates all with distinction, in every sense. Above the stage hangs a zoological slide show depicting the mating practices of various earth creatures. The males gradually devolve as the females devour, as least as interpreted by the otherwise taciturn daughter of this distraught family. Feminist sentiment be damned. This is celebration of destruction: definitely amusing, but morally untenable. More of that in a moment.

As the wife, Judy, Laurie Metcalf turns in a sharply timed and tuned performance. The character has her say in the first act, but she does not leave her shaming husband. She prefers berating. Her anger is in her straight spine. She is not bent.

Bill, the gynecologist turned priapic predator politician, shambles along by way of Jeff Goldblum’s slimy personification. Bill parades his self defense in the second act. No way to win this case, of course, and begging for sympathy through anthropological example is more excuse than any exoneration can merit. Bill may not be convincing, but Goldblum’s performance is arresting. Habitually curling his fingers at his chest, Goldblum delivers the right touch of false humility: not quite, or ever, breast beating.

The supporting cast members embrace their multiple roles with relish, even if depending too often on attitude – especially in the case of a talk show host who is a bit too consciously smarmy for credibility. The text and directorial emphasis is on the comic, while reaching for, but not quite achieving, the absurd.

What feels absent in Domesticated is some sort of moral center to this familiarly skewed, down-sliding spiral of relationships. Norris skims the surface with a splendid design, but little daring. The one scene which takes a deeper dive takes place, appropriately, in a dive. Bill encounters an English-mangling (‘hysterectory’) Hispanic transgender woman. A verbal battle of the genders ensues. For once, the humor is built on substance. What is a woman, and what is a man? What is the difference, and, therefore, what is the responsibility of each to each?

Norris’s insufficient answer is simply a poke in the eye.

Joann Green Breuer is artistic associate of the Vineyard Playhouse.

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