stage dive

Theater Review: Painful Intimacy

 Intimacy by Thomas Bradshaw.. Pictured L-R: Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz, Daniel Gerroll.
Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz, and Daniel Gerroll in Thomas Bradshaw’s Intimacy. Photo: Monique Carboni

The playwright Thomas Bradshaw isn’t much interested in your pleasure, but he sure seems to enjoy your discomfort. Sex, violence, humiliation, and racism are not just themes for him; they’re stage directions. In works like Purity, Southern Promises, The Bereaved, and Burning, he took explicitness of all kinds to a level guaranteed to cause walkouts or worse. Scott Brown, writing for Vulture about The New Group’s production of Burning in 2011, used the words “turgid,” “psychopathic,” and “wartlike.” They fall short in describing Intimacy, Bradshaw’s followup provocation, also at the New Group. After all, Burning was merely (as the director of both, Scott Elliot, writes in a program note) “a seminal experience.” Intimacy, especially from the front row, is that and more.

There aren’t many bodily fluids (or body parts) left unrepresented in Intimacy. (Props to the props folks, who should definitely win the Obie for Best Ejaculating Prosthetic Penis.) Over the course of the play’s seemingly endless two acts, we are shown countless incidents of vigorously simulated masturbation, frottage, fellatio, anal sex, anilingus, cunnilingus, and, obviously, full frontal and backal nudity. Also: X-rated film clips and a middle-aged guy loudly using a toilet. Elliott attempts to justify all this in his program note by arguing that “There is nothing you’ll see in Intimacy that you haven’t seen before; it’s just that when it’s onstage it is impossible to ignore.” Wrong on both counts. The parade of engorged junk gets boring fast. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never before seen a man being encouraged by his wife to enjoy himself while watching a girl-on-girl video starring their daughter.

A better excuse for all the obscenity might attempt to link the audience’s enforced voyeurism to the hypocrisy that governs contemporary attitudes about porn. And the play’s set-up almost seems designed to do that, with its three neatly parallel suburban families, each dealing with horny teens and adult shames. Nubile Janet, with her mother’s encouragement but not her father’s, has chosen pornography as a career. Princeton-bound Sarah, a technical virgin, must hide her frottage-based sex life from her overprotective father, a Honduran contractor who watches gay porn. Meanwhile, Matthew, her slacker boyfriend, spies on Janet in her bedroom. It’s Matthew who devises the idea of a hardcore “neighborhood porn film” called Intimacy, starring his lonely born-again widower father and the rest of the cast. We watch the taping both live and on monitors, spurts and squirts and close-ups and all. (There’s a reason the script keeps emphasizing that the three kids are 18.) By the end, everyone has learned to view the satisfaction of bodily desires as a kind of public service. They (and presumably we) are happier people for it.

This is stupid, of course. Incest, by proxy or otherwise, is no one’s good idea. Having sex with your girlfriend’s father, even with her permission, does not improve society. And where is this world in which women in porn are not mistreated? (Deep Throat is referenced positively — “there’s a real plot here, and not a dumb one either” — with no mention of Linda Lovelace’s having been bullied and held at gunpoint to make it.) In these ways, Bradshaw blithely leaps over the landmines that would otherwise blow up whatever argument he might have intended. But then, nothing in the play is actually argued. Even if it tried to make a case for something, it would fail; the language, as in this dialogue between the pornlet and her “feminist” mother, is too incredible and painfully flat to create any worthwhile perspectives:

JANET: But the thing is that I like to be eaten out for like 45 minutes after sex.
: So?
JANET: He says that his tongue gets tired and he won’t do that anymore. He called me a freak and broke up with me.
PAT: You don’t need a man like that around. There are plenty of men who would die to have a lover like you.
JANET: Thanks for understanding.

To the extent the banality may sometimes be purposeful, Bradshaw must mean to disorient us so completely that we are open to a new kind of theatrical experience. The experience isn’t worth it. In fact, it’s actively repellent. The audience is put in Lovelace’s humiliating position, forced to participate in someone else’s incoherent fantasy. Either that or we’re dealing with rub-your-nose-in-it satire. But satire of what? Sex positivity? (The feminist mother’s main concern for her daughter’s porn “career” is that her filmed orgasms should look more realistic.) Sex hypocrisy? (The born-again dad can’t stop whacking off to Barely Legal.) Sophomoric spoofs of suburban racism, class warfare, identity politics, and gun mania also make random appearances in the script. But a satire of everything is a satire of nothing.

Also: Shouldn’t satire be funny? Intimacy isn’t even successfully provocative. Rather, it just seems clumsy, a problem exacerbated by Elliott’s atrocious direction, with its frequent longueurs and gaps and stumbles. It’s not just a prudish response to frequent nudity to say you don’t know where to look: the staging is so bad you really don’t know where to look. Partly this is the fault of the set designer, whose name I omit because he has always done better work elsewhere. And to speak of the actors’ performances in this context would similarly be unfair, since it appears they were deliberately instructed to aim for the level of the acting in porn movies. (They do not quite make it.) But I will call out Bradshaw again for — take your choice — cynicism or ineptness. Granted, our culture’s alienation from a genuine sexuality could be seen as a kind of shared sinfulness. But Intimacy is no answer. What it actually demonstrates is not so much the banality of evil as the evil of banality.

Intimacy is at the Acorn Theatre through March 8.