Thursday, February 04, 2016

Emotionally Unwelcoming 'Domesticated' Leaves Me Out in the Cold -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play
written and directed by Bruce Norris
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 7

Unlike the rather comparable Goodman Theatre, I am not a subscriber to Chicago's erstwhile and venerated Steppenwolf Theatre. 

This is largely because the latter's generous discount programs--especially Day Of $20 tickets--enable me to see selections for less than the per-play subscription cost.

While this allows me to be more selective, I tend to see at least a few Steppenwolf productions each season--often influenced by strong reviews.

When I noted their staging of Domesticated by Bruce Norris, I was initially quite interested as I have very much enjoyed some of the writer's previous plays at Steppenwolf, especially Clybourne Park (2011) and The Qualms (2014) but also The Pain and the Itch (2005) and to a lesser extent A Parallelogram (2010).

The male lead in Domesticated is Tom Irwin, a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 1979 who I've seen a few times here but will also always fondly recall as the father in the single season of My So-Called Life. And opposite Irwin is Mary Beth Fisher, who I have seen onstage no less than a dozen times over the years, and always find terrific.

While press reviews seemed generally favorable, I noticed few that were outstanding or insistent, and a word-of-mouth opinion was even more middling. So despite the author--who also directs this production--and cast, it seemed Domesticated would come and go without me seeing it. (It closes this Sunday.)

But then Steppenwolf sent me an offer to buy a $20 ticket in advance, although I wound up buying it on the "Day of Show" anyway, coinciding with a performance a friend was attending.

Especially as there are just a few days left in the Steppenwolf run, I won't spend too much time and space detailing what I didn't like about Domesticated; suffice it to say there was little I did.

Irwin plays Bill Pulver, an unspecified public official forced to resign as the play opens after a prostitute he was with winds up in a coma. Fisher is his wife, Judy, high-strung, controlling and initially some combination of naive, in denial and oddly forgiving.

They have two daughters, the highly combustible Casey (Melanie Neilan) and Cambodian adoptee Cassidy (Emily Chang), whose science presentations on social dimorphism in nature provides Norris' only obvious revelation that he is knowingly mocking Bill's galling insensitivity--just when you think he can't become even more of a dillweed, he does--and the couple's disconnect.

In the post-show discussion, it dawned on me that in creating such cold, unsympathetic characters of an age and social strata roughly approximating a good portion of Steppenwolf's patrons, perhaps Norris was slyly trying to provoke discomforting self-reflection among his audience. (Domesticated premiered in New York in 2013.)

As is often the case, it's possible there is something here I just didn't connect with to the extent others have or might. (Though some others in the post-show discussion seemed to share my distaste.)

I guess it's fair to say Irwin and Fisher, as well as Neilan and others, do a really good job of making their characters unlikable, but in doing so, they provided me with no emotional way into Domesticated.

Within the play, you never get much inkling that anyone likes each other, not even the daughters by their parents, or even one another.

So whatever deeper messaging I was supposed to appreciate, or thoughts to ponder, I never enjoyed simply watching Domesticated, and beyond basic empathy for anyone treated unkindly, didn't care about anything that was happening to anyone.

Perhaps that was the point, but I like theater--and almost all art forms--to provide me with some sort of emotional connection. A bit of warmth to go along with my wonder.

Domesticated simply left me feeling like I really didn't need to be there.

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