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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Daniel Gerroll
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Even shock shtick only goes so far. I first encountered the machinations of Thomas Bradshaw in late 2011, when The New Group presented his Burning, a tragicomic cluster-collage about the confluence of art, gay sex, and neo-Nazism in... oh, forget it. Though its unchecked tonal confusion was not to my taste, it at least seemed as though Bradshaw was trying, however flailingly, to comment on the world or the human condition. Now his new work, Intimacy, being presented again by The New Group at the Acorn Theatre, has oozed open free of even that minuscule burden.

Though it doesn't quite reach the level of hardcore pornography—though video clips from several X- and XXX-rated titles that appear during the evening certainly qualify—it comes close. Worse, it does so without even a tip of the hat to the consistency, thematic coherence, or emotional reality that might make me at least attempt to defend it on artistic grounds. But the word "art" doesn't belong within 100 light years of what Bradshaw and director Scott Elliott have rendered.

This is where I would normally begin describing the plot, but there are so many jumbled, unresolved elements it's impossible to know what, if anything, the narrative takeaway is supposed to be. Foremost among the fragments: Matthew, an aspiring teenage filmmaker, becomes obsessed with the concept of "frottage," or sexual intercourse without traditional penetration, as a method of protecting the virginity of his girlfriend, Sarah; Matthew's born-again dad James mourns his two-years-dead wife by going on obscenity crusades when he's not dripping drool (and other bodily fluids) on copies of Barely Legal, in which he discovers a layout of the neighboring couple's daughter Janet or griping about the work of Sarah's contractor-father Fred, who's married but apparently attracted to Matthew.

The show's title suggests a journey for these people that would guide them from physical pleasure to genuine emotional and spiritual connections, and one assumes that's the excuse Bradshaw envisioned, but it doesn't come through in the writing. The first act is utterly dependent on its luridness and contains nothing else; the crowning "achievement" is an imaginary version of on-the-rise porn actress Janet—seen onstage completely naked, of course—begging her father Jerry to masturbate to her magazine photo shoot. Act II goes an entirely different route, effectively ignoring most of the setup, characterizations, and relationships of the first act in order to keep getting more ridiculously over the top.

During the course of all this, any number of bewildering crudities are enacted. Practically every character gets naked. When a character drops his pants to sit on a toilet, you see (and, sigh, hear) everything. The men are predisposed to visually ejaculating, and unless Elliott's costume designs are more inventive than they otherwise appear, one of actor sports a full erection at one point.

Decry this as disgusting or amoral if you must, but it's also really sloppy theatre. Titillating trappings are one thing if they're in service of a story, but that's not the case here. Aside from the whiplash-inducing flip-flops between the acts, characters pair off in ways, and with people, that make no sense; change their sexual orientations on a whim; and solve intimacy problems we'd not been previously been led to believe they had. And don't get me started on the eighth-hearted resolution to the out-of-nowhere racial subplot.

If Bradshaw's entire goal was just to see how far he could go, mission accomplished. If, on the other hand, he thought he was scribing a scathing satire about puritanical values in a naturally oversexed world, his disordered thoughts and unfinished ideas rob it of any and all impact. Elliott's staging is, I suppose, about as efficient as it could be; and Derek McLane's cluttered suburban set makes for quick movement between locales for the many scenes Bradshaw requires (though Russell H. Champa's self-conscious lights impede the flow more often than they should). But none of it makes you feel that you're watching a serious work bearing a serious message.

Performers are extraneous in such a scenario, and for the most part those here behave like it. I'll spare most of them the association with this enterprise and only call out Daniel Gerroll, who brings a pinpoint honesty to James for a fair chunk of the first act, and Laura Esterman, whose dry comic delivery is a welcome respite from the black hole of subtlety that surrounds her.

Even if what Bradshaw has wrought barely qualifies as a play, I have to concede that it's never boring. Regardless of how offended, annoyed, or impatient you get, ripping your eyes away from this spectacle is a no-go. Whether that is, or should be, good enough is a question I can't answer for you, though New York offers so much theatre that you won't have to look too long to find one that, unlike Intimacy, is both gripping and worth watching.

Through March 8
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets and performance schedule at Telecharge

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