So few American playwrights really deal with social-political issues these days that Bruce Norris’s 2011 play Clybourne Park looked to many like a work of brilliance. Set in an inner-city neighborhood over a span of 50 years — in the 1950s, when the first black family tries to move in, and in the 2000s, when the first white Yuppies want to move back — it was smart and cleverly constructed, but marred (especially in the 1950s scenes) by some broad stereotyping and cheap laughs. Still, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony award for best play.
Norris’s new work, Domesticated, is a better play: sharper, funnier, even more cleverly constructed — and more on top of the news as well. Inspired by the sex scandals that brought down politicians like Elliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner, it opens with the prototypical scene of public confession and contrition. Facing the TV cameras, wife dutifully at his side, a politician named Bill Pulver (Jeff Goldblum) announces his resignation from an unnamed public office, over an unspecified sex scandal. But he wavers back and forth between following his script and damning the whole phony exercise: “I don’t know what there is to be gained by going through some predetermined ritual of self-flagella — sorry. I will resign this office effective noon today.”
The play then follows him home and charts the scandal’s aftermath. For nearly the entire first act, Bill says nothing, as he is excoriated by his bitter wife (Laurie Metcalf), abused by his proto-feminist teenage daughter (Emily Meade), counseled by his brittle, high-heeled lawyer (Mia Barron) and turned into the villain of a familiar media soap-opera — which involves, not just the usual sexual indiscretions, but a prostitute who is now in a coma following an accident during their night of rough sex.
There’s no soap opera in Domesticated. Norris, instead, opts for acid family comedy, as Bill’s wife learns, drip by agonizing drip, the extent of her husband’s deceptions and the depth of her naivete. The semi-articulate, stop-and-start dialogue has echoes of David Mamet, and Norris has a knack for amusing jump cuts between the short scenes: a pointless therapy session; a bleak beach vacation with Bill’s mother; an exploitative, Oprah-like talk show. Moment to moment, the play is terrifically, almost scandalously entertaining — like the smartest TV sitcom you could imagine. (Even a purportedly savvy political comedy like HBO’s Veep looks cartoonish and dumb by comparison.)
A silent punching bag through most of Act 1, Bill turns into a self-justifying blabbermouth in Act 2: pouring out his rationalizations to a bartender, trying to get back his old job (as a gynecologist!), vainly seeking to get his two daughters back on speaking terms, displaying an alarmingly short fuse and a startling facility for lying. As he spirals downward, he prattles on about the impossibility of fidelity in marriage, the power struggle between men and women — more echoes of Mamet, but without his misogyny. The play’s framing device — Bill’s younger daughter narrating a series of nature films to illustrate sex-role relationships in the animal kingdom — is a little heavy-handed, and there are some plot twists that strain credulity. But it is absorbing from start to finish.
With his hangdog face, beanpole frame and querulous speech rhythms, Goldblum manages to be both smarmy and sympathetic as the disgraced politician. Metcalf is utterly brilliant as his caustic wife, doing the longest, most painful-hilarious slow burn in recent theater memory. Director Anna D. Shapiro (a Tony winner for August: Osage County) paces the show beautifully and keeps every laugh true. The play has just opened at the small Mitzi Newhouse Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center, but by all rights it should be on Broadway, and getting more attention from the Tony people. This time deserved.
(Lincoln Center Theater, through January 5)