by Heather Violanti · January 29, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #43: Heather Violanti returns and takes a look at Intimacy by Thomas Bradshaw produced by the New Group playing at Theater Row.
INTIMACY is a satyr play for the 21st century, a dark, bawdy comedy for a supposedly “post-racial,” “post-feminist,” “post-whatever” America where prejudice still rears its ugly head and anyone can download porn on Youtube. The play exposes far more than flesh; it lays bare the loneliness and hypocrisy that lurk behind the perfect façade of an idealized America.
Thematically, then, it’s as familiar as a re-run of Desperate Housewives, but provocateur playwright Thomas Bradshaw strives to defamiliarize the suburban angst via startling bluntness, with varying results. The most shocking scenes, surprisingly, usually happen when the characters are fully clothed—casually dropping racial slurs while re-modelling a home, spouting hatred while shopping for a gun at Wal-Mart, or calmly critiquing a daughter’s porn career while lounging in bed.
This frank exploration of race and sex separates INTIMACY from its predecessors. For decades, from Our Town to American Beauty, the skull beneath the skin of sunny America has often been dissected, but rarely with the bluntness found here, or with such pointed emphasis on race. Notably, Bradshaw captures the problematic discussion of race in post-racial America with comic lucidity. “As a white man, I don’t think about race much,” says Matthew, an aspiring film-maker, as he lies in bed with his erstwhile girlfriend, Sarah, who happens to be Latina. She replies, “That’s because you’re white.”
Bradshaw also examines the sexualization of American pop culture with non-judgmental frankness. This is perhaps most fully realized in the character of Pat, a women’s studies professor who is troubled by her female students wearing tight Juicy Couture track bottoms, but non-plussed when her daughter becomes a porn star, arguing she is bringing pleasure to millions of people.
The play’s already notorious moments of nudity and graphic sex provoke less than hype might suggest. The play’s second act—in which the characters band together to film a “neighborhood porn”—deliberately shifts into farce, but the sex unsettles far less than the previous racism and violence. The second act also lacks the structural and psychological complexity of the first—marked by cinematic scenes that cross-cut into each other--but perhaps this is because of the act’s shift in tone. Even the tongue-in-cheek happy ending, in which everyone’s problems have been magically resolved through the power of sex—but they’re all still racist—somehow misses the mark. It feels like a hasty, not quite finished attempt to resolve the play’s disparate themes and tonal shifts.
Director Scott Elliott physicalizes the play’s themes with a startling opening tableau. The performance begins with the entire ensemble onstage—together in the same space, yet apart. No one looks at each other; everyone remains locked in his or her own banal world—listening to music, watching home movies, stretching, scrapbooking. It’s an obvious—and powerful—illustration of how the characters lack any intimacy with each other—whether familial, friendly, or sexual.
Overall, while neither as ground-breaking nor shocking as it is hyped to be, INTIMACY is still a provocative examination of contemporary American life.