Bruce Norris won the Pulitzer in 2011 and the Tony Award in 2012 for best play when his Clybourne Park played on Broadway after a successful run off Broadway in 2010. Critics and public alike responded to its insights and accuracy in presenting authentic characters of different races. The press and the public also responded to its fresh structure; making use of the house in which Lorraine Hansberry’s Younger family lived in A Raisin in the Sun, setting the first act just before the Youngers moved in, and the second act fifty years later (1959 and 2009). A good story, peopled with interesting and well defined characters, it was a great success and will undoubtedly be revived again and again in the future.
Once again Norris has taken what could have been a headline story from a scandal sheet and presented it as a layered and interesting study of a marriage in the shadow of a scandal. A politician is ousted from office, a family is fractured, everyone in it is left in tatters with little hope of recovery. As we watch this battle royal between the sexes, Mr. Norris relates it to examples from nature, as he has the young adopted daughter (Misha Seo) in this family conduct a lecture. She seems totally detached, as though she was sorry she ever landed in this very unhappy household. In her lecture she uses slides of various species of fauna depicting the varying degrees of emasculation that occurs right on down to the most basic of underwater life in which the male is diminished almost to the point of oblivion.
These slides from nature bring some levity to the proceedings, while the scenes that follow them dramatize the human equivalent of what they propose, and these make us wince and recoil. For the family in this play is headed by Bill, whose marriage of 32 years to Judy has been mirthless from the start. It produced a daughter, now a teenager, and the adopted younger daughter. The rest of the cast does double and triple duty as doctors, talk show hosts, best friends and other peripheral characters.
Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf are the parents, and Emily Meade is Casey, their filled-with-rage loose cannon of a biological daughter. In the first act, Goldblum’s Bill is virtually mute, clearly in shock over the enormously damaging repercussions stemming from what he feels was an ordinary indiscretion, one of many he’s committed secretly over the years. But in his mind the accident that occurred during a particular visit with a prostitute was just a matter of bad luck. Goldblum does a remarkable job of conveying shock, dismay, depression and total confusion, using mostly body English and a very mobile face as tools.
This gives room and time to Ms. Metcalf to let him have it with both barrels, playing the dutiful and loyal wife during exposure to the media, turning into Medea, Mme. Defarge and other vengeful ladies when home alone with family. No one can spit venom more convincingly than Ms. Metcalf, surprising us once again, particularly coming so soon after her brilliant take on the addicted and submissive Mary Tyrone in Long Days Journey Into Night, which is the last thing I saw her play. I didn’t see her prize winning turn in last season’s The Other Place at Manhattan Theatre Club, but I’m told that in that one she moved in another direction — from the seemingly controlled and intelligent scientist to a woman of great vulnerability.
Ms. Metcalf has the equipment within her to project whatever is needed. I’d love to see her tackle a rip roaring farce next time out, for her range in drama would seem to be without bounds. In Domesticated, she is a terror and she leaves the equally gifted Jeff Goldbum’s character in shreds. As their daughter-from-hell, Emily Meade makes a formidable debut. I wouldn’t want to know her character in real life. She is so convincing as a shrew that next time out I’d advise her to try something sweet like Cinderella just to show us she’s not really like that.
In addition, Karen Pittman as a talk show host borrowed from Oprah Winfrey at her most unctuous, and Mia Barron as Judy’s bitchy best friend are both crisp and scary, and very effective. Anna D. Shapiro has directed with a keen eye for detail, not always easy when staging is in the round, as it is here. However, it does allow us a look in on this very strained family from all angles. This is not Ah, Wilderness!, this is tough material. Males, beware. Mr. Norris is warning us; in time we may not be needed at all.
Domesticated is onstage through January 5, 2013 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, New York. Details and tickets or call 212-239-6200.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.