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Theater Tue Dec 22 2015

Steppenwolf's Domesticated Is A Paper Tiger

Domesticated
Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Irwin in Steppenwolf Theatre's Domesticated.

Domesticated opens with an all-too-familiar press conference you've seen both on cable news and in TV dramas: a middle-aged politician apologizing (or trying to, anyway) for a sex scandal as his wife looks on. Can Steppenwolf's Bruce Norris, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of Clybourne Park, turn one of our oldest tropes into an edgy conversation starter?

He certainly tries. The original production at the Lincoln Center in New York, featuring Jeff Goldblum as the philandering Bill Pulver and directed by current Steppenwolf artistic director, Anna Shapiro, opened to good reviews. But despite Norris's audacious structure and a trio of fiery performances from Tom Irwin, Mary Beth Fisher and Beth Lacke, Steppenwolf's Domesticated is often aimless and oblique.

Here's the setup. Bill has been cheating on his wife Judy for years with prostitutes barely older than their eldest daughter, but he's been able to keep it a secret. That is, until one of them winds up in a coma. What happened is unclear. Bill says she fell and hit her head on the hotel bedpost, but the victim's mother thinks Bill pushed her. An investigation is ongoing, Bill doesn't have a job any more, and his family has had enough.

Now for Norris's stylistic innovations. First, he attempts an avant-garde framing device between scenes, where the politician's adopted daughter, Cassidy (Emily Chang) projects a multimedia presentation about sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom. It's supposed to be a funny, postmodern riff on human gender relations, but it comes off as a string of lazy metaphors.

Second, Norris structures the play so that the cheating politician--Bill Pulver--doesn't speak a single word until Act II (except for that opening press conference). It's a bold move, and it gives the production's talented female actors time to shine, but the script still manages to fail the Bechdel test: all the women ever talk about is Bill.

In fact, an alternative title for the play could well be What We Talk About When We Talk About Bill. Bruce Norris has always been a talky dialogue writer who enjoys monologues, but Domesticated is the most plotless play I've ever seen. Scenes do not move the story forward in any linear sense. Characters, including Bill himself, just continue to talk (and talk and talk) about Bill's off-screen behavior. There's far too much summary and allusion, far too little dramatization.

Ensemble member Tom Irwin's performance does manage to wrench some nuance out of the one-dimensional, misogynistic politician in the script. Mary Beth Fisher deserves all the attention she'll undoubtedly receive for her spirited turn as Bill's spurned wife Judy. The most lively performance, however--the sole character I actually enjoyed seeing on stage--is Beth Lacke as the Pulver family lawyer. Other supporting characters are purely archetypal, especially Bill's children: the insufferable teenage daughter and the silent/agentless adoptee from a foreign country.

Finally, the climactic arguments between Bill and Judy clearly meant to shock and provoke those "dinner table conversations" feel tired and predictable. I'm glad playwrights continue to combat outdated attitudes and gender roles through dramatized misogyny, but Domesticated too often feels like a conversation we've already had.

Domesticated runs through Feb. 7 at the Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N Halsted). Tickets are $20 to $89 and can be purchased online or by calling 312-335-1650. The show is two hours plus a 15-minute intermission.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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