'Domesticated' review: Sex scandal tale resists convention

Jeff Goldblum co-stars (with Laurie Metcalf) in the

Jeff Goldblum co-stars (with Laurie Metcalf) in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Bruce Norris' "Domesticated." (Credit: Joan Marcus)

Don't be lulled by the laughs, or even the sniggering, in "Domesticated," the latest Bruce Norris tragicomedy to draw us into a familiar situation before scorching all sides with their -- our? -- own hypocrisies.

Norris, whose "Clybourne Park" won a Pulitzer, a Tony and London's Olivier by eviscerating racial and real estate niceties, turns here to the tabloid-ready sight of a politician resigning for a sex scandal while his wife squirms at his side.

With power actors Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf as power couple Bill and Judy, Norris sculpts a mercilessly amusing first act that plays at satisfying our inevitable voyeuristic curiosity. You know, what could life around the dinner table with the kids possibly be like after the humiliating revelation of such agonizing intimacies?

But Norris and his expert director Anna D. Shapiro ("August: Osage County") do not settle for the smart wronged-wife/careless beastly husband recriminations that tumble out with nonstop clever viciousness and hurt. In the second act, which I suspect will disappoint theatergoers enjoying the thrill of easy-target revenge, Norris knots up his intentions with messier, far more contentious ambiguities about love, monogamy and the bigotry of some gender politics.

Here, attention turns to Bill, who has moved out, stopped hanging his head in shame and tries to rebuild his life as a prominent gynecologist and women's health activist. This is not pretty. A horribly abused Muslim patient chastises him for having had sex with a young prostitute who, probably by accident, ended up in a vegetative state. Most resonant is Judy's visit to his flat, where we learn more disturbing realities about their sex lives -- and his weird mix of delusional romanticism and unsentimentality -- than anyone could have guessed.

Goldblum's Bill is both magnificently unlikeable and understandable. Metcalf's Judy, a compassionate and opportunistic socialite in beige folds of silk (costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser), surely has the saddest, most expressive dimples in the theater. The large, excellent cast includes Emily Meade as the teen daughter empowered by selective indignation and Misha Seo as her sensitive sister who frames each scene on the four-sided stage with a school slideshow on gender dominance in the animal kingdom. Mary Beth Peil, as Bill's patrician mother, may be awfully close to the character she plays on "The Good Wife," but she is delicious at it.

So what is Norris trying to say in this mean, wrathful, witty play? It would be a big mistake to reduce it to a misogynistic poor-me/modern-man screed, a dated diatribe about the "self-righteous whining" of women about their "supposed victimization." Norris, who memorably once explained that he doesn't "do redemption," creates deeply off-putting yet bright and inviting provocations that also resist domestication.

WHAT "Domesticated"

WHERE Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center Theater

INFO $87; 212-239-6200; lct.org

BOTTOM LINE Brutal, witty and ambiguous power play

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