The disgraced politician at the center of Bruce Norris’s Domesticated believes that he is a victim—a victim of natural biological urges, a victim of an anti-male society, a victim of the laws of physics.
Following a quick multi-media presentation on sexual dimorphism (that highlights gender dominance in a series of non-human species), Domesticated begins with the resignation of an urban politician named Bill (Tom Irvin) following a scandal that involves Bill injuring a teenage prostitute in a hotel room. Regardless of whether Bill pushed her or she fell by accident, she is in a coma and Bill must leave public service. Bill’s embarrassing inability to stick to his script as he meanders between public apology and incoherent justification of his actions is highlighted by his wife Judy (Mary Beth Fisher), who stands beside him with the icy stoicism.
After the press conference concludes, Bill is on stage but remains silent for most of the first act. The women that surround him—including his wife, two daughters, lawyer, marriage counselor, TV interviewer, and mother—fill every gap in conversation. Thus (Norris, who directed this production of his own script) explores how a man like Bill, with his growing list of exposed sexual indiscretions, is a failure in defending himself in our media-fueled society.
Like Norris’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Clybourne Park, the second act varies significantly from the first. In the second act, Bill cannot stop talking, and Irwin delivers a remarkable performance as Bill lectures anyone who will listen—a bartender, a trans-gender male, female patients as he tries to resume his career as a gynecologist—about how his actions were unavoidable. Among his most offensive views is a psychoanalytical theory that a man cannot help but feel antagonism toward his own daughter as she steals the focus of his wife’s adorations away from himself. Whether Bill has always harbored sexism to this depth or whether he has become embittered by his recent damnation by public opinion is left for the audience to decide.
Norris’s well-deserved success as a playwright is based on his skill for writing dialogue that inspires consistent laughs as he tackles controversial topics. Many of the best lines go to Judy as she tries to retain dignity despite the humiliation her husband has delivered to her family (a favorite comedic moment: Judy telling her daughters that dismissing their live-in maid will not be so bad because “Pilar has agreed to teach us how to use the washer and dryer”). Emily Chang as Cassidy (Bill and Judy’s younger daughter, a high school student) produces many comic highlights with her ongoing presentation on sexual dimorphism, which breaks the tension of the main plotline with the guise that Cassidy is presenting a school project in a parallel scene. As the play progresses, Cassidy presents on species with increasingly deflated male roles. The species include jackals, in which the males function below the matriarchs and their young—male jackals are “the lowest of the low of the low” (until we get to the female triplewart seadevil fish).
Comparisons between the Bill that Norris creates and another famous politician are inevitable, but Domesticated is more about the breakdown of a modern, high-profile relationship than a recrimination of the Clintons. Similarly, Domesticated has much to communicate about gender stereotypes, but it does not allow characters of either sex to be defined based solely on gender. Instead, Bill and Judy address what happens after the political scandal has been exposed. The result is an insightful and often hilarious exploration of a man that continues to combust long after the TV cameras have moved on.