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Domesticated

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Domesticated
Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf
Photo by Joan Marcus.
If a political scandal has ever made you want to scream things like "I don't believe you!", "Why don't you think about your family?", or "Would you please just shut up?", then Bruce Norris should be your new patron saint of playwriting. With Domesticated, which just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, Norris distills each and every public reaction to an elected official's oily wrongdoing into a single evening that will ensure you never again look at focus-grouped nonsensical declarations and insincere lip-biting apologies quite the same way.

Key to Norris's impeccably crafted, if not always electrifying, exposé is the notion that the exact details of the central outrage are largely immaterial. The politician, Bill (Jeff Goldblum), met a prostitute alone in a hotel room, and that as a result of hitting her head against the bed frame she's been rendered mute and immobile. But was it an accident? Or did he push her? One arbitration scene raises the question, but drops it almost as quickly. Norris doesn't let us dwell on such concerns: It's the aftermath, as experienced by both Bill and his wife Judy (Laurie Metcalf), that matters most.

Most of the first act unfolds from Judy's perspective, as she stands by Bill's side during his humiliating resignation press conference, then patiently endures the endless parade of lawyers (including her chief counsel, her friend Bobbie, played by Mia Barron), and taunting and insults lobbed at her husband by not just everyday people but even her oldest daughter, Casey (Emily Meade). But upon discovering that Bill's indiscretion was not an isolated event but rather the most recent in a series spanning the entirety of their 30-year marriage, she concludes that the only way to regain sanity is for her to retake the reins.

When she does, Bill is all but ejected from the family, so Norris switches the point of view to him as he tries to restart his life as the victim of others' prejudices. (Not so surprisingly, he has more than a little trouble rekindling his previous career as a gynecologist.) But redemption doesn't come easy to the non-penitent, and Bill slowly begins to learn the hard way that no one can forever avoid paying some price for their actions.

Domesticated is a solid play — taut, tight, often funny, and always watchable — but it suffers as a result of the expectations that made it possible. As it follows in the wake of the too-strange-to-be-true exploits of Eliot Spitzer and especially Anthony Weiner, you're probably anticipating more than the voyeuristic thrill of behind-closed-doors bartering between legal and familial parties, but with only a couple of exceptions, that forms the basis of the action and rarely progresses beyond that. Bill and Judy have their tiffs, but most of the explosions come from cap guns rather than nuclear warheads.

Through no fault of director Anna D. Shapiro, who hasn't allowed a single comic beat to be missed or any aspect of the lean production (the stark sets are by Todd Rosenthal, the lights by James F. Ingalls, and the costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser) to interfere with Norris's wordplay, this can leave the proceedings somewhat schematic; even as you cheer Norris's tackling the subject at all, you wish Norris had taken a more chances. His previous plays in New York, The Pain and the Itch and Clybourne Park, were rich and clever, loaded with commentary and out-of-the-ordinary viewpoints that forced you to examine prejudice in challenging and occasionally chilling ways. Domesticated is cleaner, true, but smaller and less complex; by not implicating the viewer the way its predecessors did, it feels less necessary despite feeling more immediately relevant.

Norris approaches innovation only twice. First, and most prominently, are the excerpts of a speech from Bill and Judy's younger daughter, Cassidy (Misha Seo, darkly deadpan), that pepper the scenes with hilarious discussions about sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom that reflect Bill and Judy's gradual disintegration (roughly equal ring-necked pheasants give way to parasitic anglerfish and microscopic males living in the genital sac of the female bone-eating snot-flower). And at the start of the second act, Bill has a blistering run-in with a transvestite (Robin De Jesus) who calls into question all of his gender preconceptions. But even these cases are, at best, ornamental, and don't go as far as it feels like they should.

The leads do not share that problem. Goldblum is terrific at sketching a man with an insatiable libido, who believes (not without reason) that he can get away with anything if he's charming enough, and he becomes more captivating as Bill watches his life fall apart in increasingly spectacular ways. (Bill spends most of the first act dead silent, but Goldblum's so dynamic that you don't miss a word.) Metcalf is even better, bringing a high-toned, Huma Abedin–style elegance to Judy that satisfyingly cracks as each new horror is unearthed; she becomes even more fierce and fearless as Judy assumes control over her own destiny — it's a masterful transformation.

Though De Jesus shines in his brief scene and Mary Beth Peil scores as both Bill's mother and the meddling therapist who tries to mend his and Judy's marriage, the other performers are a bit rockier. Meade is overly unhinged as Casey, Barron overshoots Bobbie's fast-talking dedication, and Vanessa Aspillaga and Aleque Reid strain in their respective roles as Bill and Judy's maid and the girl whose accident ignited Bill's downward spiral.

Just how much the surrounding galaxy needs to swirl might be open to debate: Domesticated is really about how two people deal with private issues in the least private of forums, and everyone else is understandably subsidiary. The result is undeniably entertaining, but it's tough not to wish it more deeply explored Bill's dueling psychoses of sex and popularity and mused more on what they mean for families, communities, and even America at large. For better or (much more likely) for worse, such occurrences are commonplace in this country, and deserve to receive the intense scrutiny from dramatists that they will never, ever receive from their political participants.


Domesticated
Through January 5
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge