It’s an age-old story: a politician and a sex scandal (yawn). Americans are unfortunately quite accustomed to such a tale. But Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s (1650 N. Halsted St.) newest production Domesticated (written and directed by Pulitzer winner Bruce Norris) delves into something Americans aren’t quite as familiar with: the stark, dirty details and long-awaited, honest perspective of the cheating middle-aged white man.
The play opens with gynecologist-turned-politician Bill Pulver (Tom Irwin) apologizing to the public for his sex scandal, which involves a prostitute dressed as a schoolgirl who ends up in a coma after falling — or being pushed? — in a hotel room with Bill. His wife, Judy (Mary Beth Fisher), stands at his side in lethargic, indifferent support. It is overtly predictable, comedic even, at first.
The whole family is equally as stereotypical as the apology/podium scene, but the actors competently present their characters as authentic and wholesome. There is the emasculated and ambivalent (yet harsh and explosive) father Bill, the angst-filled, activist/feminist teenage daughter Casey (Melanie Neilan) and finally, the seemingly apathetic (yet actually strong and resilient) wife Judy.
Bill and Judy also have an adoptive daughter, Cassidy (Emily Chang), who is physically present but overwhelmingly absent for the duration of the play — speaking only in between scenes when presenting a slideshow on animal sexual dimorphism and reproduction (a comedic juxtaposition against the backdrop of her father’s own sexual behavior). The slideshow is effective and adds a different element, but somewhat unnecessary by screaming out the play’s central themes (Question monogamy! Don’t forget you are an animal! Sexual variety is an innate desire!) in case the audience couldn’t put it together yet.
Bill exists in a family (or as he sees it, world) of women. Aside from his opening speech, he remains silent almost the entire first act, until having a meltdown in which he condemns society’s notions of fidelity, sex, monogamy and human nature.
Most of his “wisdom” is revealed to us while he is drinking alone at a bar. At one point, Bill compares the beauty of a 50-year-old woman to that of the Parthenon, claiming, “You don’t exactly want to f**k the Parthenon.” And if the audience didn’t hate him before, they do now.
Throughout the play, but mostly in Bill’s long monologues during the second act, there was an air of resentment toward women. It seemed the resentment was deliberate, so as to instill discomfort, upset the audience and evoke change (as theater often aims to do).
Casey and Judy continually express hyperbolized hostility toward Bill, which only exposes their deepened hurt and betrayal. In one scene, upon learning more about her husband’s transgressions, Judy brilliantly snaps, “You infant!” before stomping offstage — delivering Norris’s already well-written lines with an even more impressive execution.
In another scene, Bill tries to get his daughter’s attention, stating, “I am your father” — to which Casey nonchalantly responds, “You are a buffoon.” Almost every word she breathes to him (and she doesn’t waste her breath with many) is a biting curse or patronizing remark. While it is hard to feel sympathy for Bill, it’s easy to feel for the classic broken American family.
Though I admit to rolling my eyes at every word from the cheating, middle-aged man’s perspective (or should I say, “whiny complaint of being oppressed”), I appreciate that it was shown. Because, as I am sure was intended, I left the play confused and disheartened about the seemingly doomed enterprise that is marriage.
I walked outside with racing thoughts: “If we, as women, treat men as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves, can we really expect anything different? If our human nature demands certain things of our sexuality, are we wrong to create structural norms?”
My high school theater director always told us an actor’s primary goal is to make the audience leave the theater thinking. Needless to say, Domesticated did just that.
The acting was phenomenal across the board, — with Irwin’s slimy portrayal of a lying, cheating politician and Fisher’s depiction of a seemingly ambivalent wife who is hurting inside. But the stakes could have been higher, especially in the second act (which dragged on a bit). With tension and emotions so high, I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for someone to commit a murder (which, spoiler alert: doesn’t happen). But hey, at least I was thinking.
Domesticated runs through Feb. 7 at Steppenwolf (1650 N. Halsted St.). Tickets range from $20 to $89 and are available for purchase here.