There are scenes in American politics so familiar you could watch them with the sound off and not miss a thing. Near the top of that list has to be the public apology for infidelity. In fact, the disgraced politician’s words of remorse and promises to reform only distract from the spectacle’s most fascinating figure: the mute, shell-shocked wife standing next to the podium where her husband is trying with all his might to look and sound sincerely disgusted with himself. They say politics is theater, but the truth is that it’s bad theater—the scripts are predictable and the actors are never convincing.
This empty ritual is repeated near the beginning of Domesticated, Bruce Norris‘s fiercely funny though repetitious comedy now onstage at Steppenwolf Theatre Company under the author’s own efficient direction. The apologizer here is women’s health advocate turned renowned public servant Bill Pulver (Tom Irwin), who’s been caught with a young prostitute wearing a schoolgirl uniform similar to the one his two teenage daughters wear every day. Worse, the girl is now in a coma, having sustained a head injury after falling during a playful tussle over a spanking paddle.
Bill’s apology for the scandal differs from the usual televised mea culpa, however. He can’t quite bring himself to perform the rites of self-flagellation expected of him, choking on the text of his speech and eventually going off script. He regrets being dishonest and causing pain, but when it comes right down to it he isn’t sorry.
As Bill sees it, love, marriage, monogamy, and other such absurdities are contrary to the natural instincts of the human animal. Despite all our good intentions and solemn pieties (two of Norris’s favorite satirical targets), we are at bottom creatures driven by self-preservation, a need to dominate, and a need to boink.
The biological argument is underscored by the show’s framing device, a school presentation delivered by Bill’s adopted tween daughter, Cassidy (Emily Chang), on the subject of sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom. Assisted by Jeff Sugg’s video projections, she cuts in every now and then to supply entertaining examples of differences between males and females of the same species, from gnus to something called the bone-eating snot flower.
Bill would have us also chalk up his supposed sins to nature, which has predisposed him to horniness. Further, he believes that women are well on their way to becoming the more dominant half of Homo sapiens (persistent pay gap notwithstanding) and, if they had their way, would probably emulate that snot flower, whose females keep their parasitic males around for no other purpose than procreation.
As his attempts to rebuild his life founder and he spirals into irrelevance, Bill rails at one female combatant after another, including his lawyer, a colleague, a bartender, a transgender stranger, and Cassidy’s viperish older sister, Casey (Melanie Neilan). All this mouthing off does Bill no good, which either proves that the women he knows really do have the upper hand or that he’s a self-destructive blowhard. Norris declines to say, though as in his earlier works, which include most notably the Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park, the playwright clearly relishes hurling brickbats at liberal orthodoxy and shows a grimly humorous pessimism about humankind’s prospects for improvement or even effective communication.
Through all of this, Bill’s chief sparring partner is his steely wife, Judy, played by the excellent Mary Beth Fisher. Following the path expected of famous wronged spouses, she writes and promotes a book about her ordeal, tries to keep up the veneer of respectability, and privately cycles through her own stages of grief—as she tells Bill in one of several lacerating speeches, they include the drinking stage, the monologue stage, and the stabbing stage.
In truth, she never really leaves the anger stage, but Fisher finds layers anyway, conveying beneath the harangues and put-downs a wounded sense of betrayal and a struggle with a kind of searing emotional migraine. Irwin’s Bill is angry the whole play too, but he’s best when he’s bottling it up, as in the press-conference apology. When he eventually bursts, what starts out as a bracing purge of political correctness quickly turns into unvaried ranting.
But that’s mostly because Norris keeps having him make the same points, at length and with diminishing returns. In this particular Hobbesian state of nature, the diatribes are nasty, brutish, and definitely not short. v