Boundaries of Scandal
By Jonathan Kalb
By Thomas Bradshaw
The New Group
The Acorn Theatre
410 W. 42nd St.
Some call Thomas Bradshaw a scandalmonger. Others call him a boundary-pusher. As usual with warring epithets, the truth is somewhere in the middle. My suspicion is that this author is ambivalent about the shocking subject matter that has come to define him, which he insists on calling “hyper-realism.” His latest play, about pornography, is a perfect case in point.
Porn is a natural subject for Bradshaw because it’s the quintessence of normalized extremism in the internet age. The plot of Intimacy follows an unremarkable suburban kid named Matthew (Austin Cauldwell) who doesn’t like high school and decides to jumpstart his film career by making a DIY porno. With absurdly little effort, he manages to enlist his widowed father, his girlfriend, her parents, the hot girl next door and his girlfriend’s father as performers. That neighbor girl, it turns out, has a head start in the adult-film industry and also a lech for Matthew’s dad (Daniel Gerroll). The girlfriend’s dad (David Anzuelo) also has a lech for Matthew. Who knew?
The production—directed with surehanded deadpan lucidity by Scott Elliott—contains nudity, simulated sex, masturbation and real porn seen on a TV screen. On the surface, its main risk seems to be that it deliberately blurs even further the always blurry line between actual porn and the artistic examination of porn. As it happens, though, the action isn’t particularly erotic, largely because the sex is treated as utterly humdrum. The show’s deeper provocation turns out to be in the way everyone couches sexual exhibition and desire in thoroughly mundane, quotidian terms. The parents, for instance, deliver all the predictable harangues about politeness, homework and texting at the table, and moments later speak of the etiquette of such matters as frottage, peeping and jerking off. Matthew’s movie might as well be a science-fair project or art-class assignment for the collective shrug it produces among the putative grownups. Monogamy, modesty, propriety, closeted desire—all of that is risibly passé in Bradshaw’s morally obtuse, post-privacy world.
The topsy-turvy moral landscape fits with his previous play scenarios. A southern couple who keeps a slave, a biracial girl who identifies with her Klan-wizard grandpa, professors who go to South America to have sex with a 9-year-old: these stories were all so hype-ready, so easily distilled into outrageous headlines, so perfectly tailored as blog-post teasers and talking points, that you couldn’t help but suspect him of easy opportunism. What’s made critics take him seriously is the peculiar tone of his work, which suggests he is after more. His characters speak in a flat, emotionally uninflected, matter-of-fact manner that clashes disconcertingly with their abominable thoughts and brutal actions—an affectless banality that recalls Richard Maxwell’s work and seems intended to goad us into noticing how odd it is that they (and we) so easily assimilate extreme ideas and behavior as normal. Why do people do this? At various times Bradshaw seems to point at ignorance, fecklessness, jadedness, and other deficits of the soul, but you can never nail him down, and the vagueness isn’t always artistically interesting.
The truth is, there’s a lot of fat and filler in Intimacy: bland repetition; meandering plot strands that don’t effectively reconnect; flabby dialogue that flounders and idles. At two and a half hours, the work is at least 45 minutes longer than it needs to be. Watching it, I had the same feeling I’ve had several times before with Bradshaw: that he’s good at provocation but doesn’t always know how to steer it in fruitful directions. His writing is most impressive when it rises beyond mere button-pushing to satire. That’s what I refer to when I speak of his ambivalence about his subject matter. Satire requires understanding of tricky issues, not just awareness of them, or a knack for depicting them. It works through wit, exaggeration and enlargement to skewer hypocrisy, fatuity and other follies, which is different from the comparatively crude project of shoving people’s noses in what you think they think but don’t say, or what you think they do and don’t acknowledge.
The final episode of Intimacy is a splendid example. The characters reunite in this scene for a post-mortem discussion about what they learned from making the porn film, and their exchange amounts to an earnestly delivered litany of hollow and puerile catchphrases from the cheap-media menu of quick-fix self-improvement that has long starved their psyches. They pat themselves on the back for “showing vulnerability,” “openly expressing themselves,” “accepting [who they] truly are,” making dead mom “smile down on [them] from heaven,” and having quality orgasms. The brilliance of this encounter is in the way it reaches beyond simple titillation to dabble in speculative understanding. Bradshaw, at last, risks zeroing in on a clear target. He should do it more.