Sunday, February 9, 2014

Off-Broadway Review: The New Group's "Intimacy"

Written by Thomas Bradshaw, directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through March 8, 2014
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz and Daniel Gerroll in Intimacy 
(photo: Monique Carboni)
In the world of playwright Thomas Bradshaw, perversions lurk just beneath the dullness of quotidian life, like David Lynch’s specious Blue Velvet. But, as in Lynch’s film, there are scant insights, along with tedious reenactments of perversions that don't resonate and, even more damagingly, don't penetrate—in either sense.

Bradshaw’s latest, Intimacy, outdoes his previous play, Burning, by upping the ante; the earlier play preoccupied itself with anal sex, while Intimacy encompasses that and much more: vomiting, defecation, flatulence, two ejaculations, and sexual activities from self-stimulation to frottage, or dry humping, are all in a wisp of a plot linking three suburban families and pornography.

Matthew—a smart 17-year-old whose dad James grieves his wife’s death in a car accident by finding religion—spies on his hot next-door neighbor, 18-year-old high school senior and porn actress Janet. While her mother Pat knows about (and approves of) her activities, her father Jerry (despite his liberal attitudes) doesn’t know, at least until James shows him a magazine she’s in, which freaks him out. Meanwhile, Matthew begins hooking up with virginal schoolmate Sarah—whose bisexual father Fred works as a handyman at James’ house—and they start having sex without any penetration.

Bradshaw renders these relationships cartoonishly, especially at the end, when the play completely drops the pretense of any kind of reality (or surreality) and collapses under the combined weight of the playwright’s desperation and crudeness. The first act sets up the linkings among the characters, building climactically to Matthew’s decision to make a porn film and not only have Janet star but also, improbably, his dad (who’s funding it), her parents and Sarah’s dad. The second act pretty much comprises the scenes making up said porn film—titled, apparently without any irony, Intimacy—with a tacked-on coda that provides a tacky happy ending for its newly liberated and paired-off characters.

Perhaps Bradshaw felt that his play would work better by foregoing attempts at insight or psychological consistency, since he caricatures his septet of characters mercilessly. What we end up with is a septet speaking in banalities when not spouting platitudes, and given to ill-considered outbursts as when Pat ticks off what Janet calls “abstract statistics” about gun ownership: why would she have so much knowledge at her fingertips? Bradshaw never makes it a plausible part of her being, instead using it to get cheap laughs from a knowing liberal audience.

Then there are the many facile, easy ironies, like Pat discussing feminism while cleaning the toilet after Jerry has her look at his latest defecation because he thinks he might be physically ill, or when Jerry talks about porn and James starts in with a heartfelt prayer. Such toothless reminders that there’s never plumbing of any depths show that tactlessness and unsubtlety are the rule, which some audience members clearly appreciate: there are laughs galore for even the laziest piece of dialogue or dredged-up bit of plotting.

Not helping matters is how flatly, even indifferently enacted this all is by performers asked to literally bare themselves onstage—physically far more than psychologically. Even the incredibly brave (if foolhardy) Ella Dershowitz’s Janet, who walks around in the altogether, has her entirely bare body the subject of her dad’s Freudian fantasy as she keeps mentioning her “shaved pussy”: although we see the body part in question, the character herself isn’t laid bare in any meaningful way. And Scott Elliott’s smooth direction relies too much on visual "shocks" like snippets of actual porn shown on TV (including a clip of Deep Throat) and various bodily fluids flying everywhere.

In sum, Intimacy—though wallowing in scatology, obscenity, racism and pornography—remains, plentiful nudity notwithstanding, disappointingly impersonal—and skin deep.

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