Theater archives

Erection Season: For Domesticated Playwright Bruce Norris, the Political Is Personal


It’s not about the sex, we say each time a political scandal erupts. It’s not about the blowjobs, the penis pictures, the hookers. It’s about the hypocrisy, the stupidity, the abuse of power.

Ignore our fulminating. It’s completely about the sex — particularly when governors are rumored to leave their dress socks on to have it. We still expect our public figures to act more prudently (and puritanically) than we might. And we feel a perverse gratification as when they fail.

You’ll certainly feel it at Bruce Norris’s timely Domesticated, which concerns another disgraced politico. Bill Pulver (Jeff Goldblum) is a gynecologist-turned-statesman with a poised wife, clever daughters, and a sterling record on women’s issues — until police discover him at the bedside of an injured prostitute.

The drama opens at the ensuing press conference, in which Bill is meant to offer a mea culpa for his misdeeds while his wife, Judy (Laurie Metcalf), stands stoically beside him. But Bill doesn’t want to stick to the script. After stuttering his way through a pro forma apology, he questions “what there is to be gained by going through some predetermined ritual of self-flagella —” before breaking off entirely.

In the ensuing scenes — funny though programmatic — Bill claims that the world has turned against him not because of his actions but because of the truth they reveal about men, women, and their various sexual proclivities. Predictably, each new rant further imperils his family, career, finances, and health.

More than a mere satirist, Norris styles himself a scourge of liberal complacency. Here, as in The Pain and the Itch and Clybourne Park, he shows the sexism, racism, and xenophobia lurking just below our clean, moisturized skin. Were this an earlier era, you might have found him shouting in the marketplace, but in this one he gets to shout at Lincoln Center (and the play includes a cruelly precise scene aimed directly at the uptown ladies who fill the theater’s plush seats).

But Norris works best when he tethers his vitriol to real people and relationships. If the ferocious debate in Clybourne Park‘s second act made the play a triumph, it was the suffering family in act one that made it matter.

Those elements don’t merge as successfully here, though the ferocity remains. The first act forces Bill into silence; the second doesn’t let him shut up, and his tirades against women become increasingly unhinged. Some of what he says does produce the discomfort Norris specializes in — that prickle when you hear a character vocalize what you have secretly, shamefully thought. But Bill’s repeated contentions that women only want men for their sperm seem absurd rather than acerbic. It weights the play too much against him, when instead we should harbor an itchy suspicion that he might be right.

That said, Goldblum — intelligent, creepy, sleazy, and sexy — is expertly cast, and Metcalf’s Judy, beautifully suited and groomed, grounds the play, refusing both the harridan and martyr roles. Emile Meade excels as their mouthy teenage daughter and Mia Barron is an equally outspoken treat as their iPhone-clutching attorney. Anna D. Shapiro, Norris’s longtime collaborator, offers direction as clear and fluid as a double martini, and with a comparable kick. Her staging just might knock your dress socks off.