Thomas Bradshaw is known as something of a playwright-provocateur, someone who likes to use his plays to poke people’s preconceptions of what makes for appropriate stage material. His most recent effort is INTIMACY, at the Acorn, directed by Scott Elliott, a work that attempts to explode the sexual hypocrisy of middle-class American life, but winds up exploding in its own face. My guest, a sophisticated woman in her thirties whose mother was in the original production of OH! CALCUTTA!, the hit 1969 revue famous for breaking many of the theatre’s sexual boundaries (despite much of it being rather second-rate), was offended by Bradshaw’s comedy, saying it succeeded only in making sex dirty for her.
Austin Cauldwell and Dea Julien. Photo: Monique Carboni.
It’s easy to see why. In addition to such things as having a character sit open-legged on a toilet, facing the audience, as he has a noisy bowel movement, or having the same character and his wife stare into the toilet to discuss the relative color of his stool, the play has scenes of a masturbating teenager ejaculating spurts of semen (or a prop master’s version of same); that same teenager, heterosexual until now, suddenly discovering his bisexuality and visibly getting a blow job (he uses a prosthesis); a man rubbing his penis until he gets an actual erection; cunnilingus; anal sex, simulated by a black actor and white actress as a video image of what is presumably occurring is shown on a large TV screen. (The same theatre complex is currently showing THE SURRENDER, based on Toni Bentley’s book about rear door sex; it’s nice to know there’s such support nearby.) Of course, there’s full frontal male and female nudity, but that’s so ho hum today. There’s much ado about frottage, the act of having sexual contact by the rubbing of genitalia without penetration, such as a penis under an armpit, which particular example a middle-aged actor is kind enough to perform with a presumed teenage girl for our artistic edification. And you may also benefit from a girl's belief that her boyfriend's semen has been so good for her skin, she wants him to aim next time for her face. FUNNY!
Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz, and Daniel Gerroll. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The action all takes place on an open set, designed by Derek McLane and lit by Russell H. Champa, scattered with furniture to suggest various rooms in a house, but the house is actually three neighboring houses in a suburban community, so the same furniture serves whichever family chooses to use it. The walls are covered in large lozenge-shaped patterns, like those of a padded headboard (or cell?), and the upstage wall bears a painting of the three contiguous ranch houses. Video projections of authentic porn acts play a significant role, including a fellatio scene from DEEP THROAT (the classic about a woman with her clitoris in her throat).
Daniel Gerroll, Ella Dershowitz, Austin Cauldwell, Dea Julien. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Mr. Bradshaw’s play seeks to expose the sexual hypocrisy of middle-class American life and to trumpet the belief that everything goes if it’s natural and feels good. There's also a theme line about racial bigotry, especially toward Mexican-Americans. This inspires a complicated sit-com plot tying together the families in those three houses—James (Daniel Gerroll), a widowed, uptight, born-again Christian dad and his horny teenage son, Matthew (Austin Caulfield), whose filmmaking ambitions turn to porn; a closeted Mexican-American contractor, Fred (David Anzuelo), and Sarah (Déa Julien), his teenage daughter, who practices frottage with Matthew to keep herself a virgin; and a black man, Jerry (Keith Randolph Smith), with multiple Ph.D.s (the latest being in queer studies), married to a women’s studies professor, Pat (Laura Esterman), and their budding porn star daughter, Janet (Ella Dershowitz). '
The situations and dialogue are designed to be outrageous. Says Jerry to James when it's revealed that the latter has a porn magazine with pictures in it of Janet: "Did you jerk off while looking at pictures of my daughter?" Or how about when Jerry later asks his wife, "Do you like my licking your butt hole?" and she replies positively, thinking he'd only done it accidentally. He thereupon admits (before diving in for a taste): "I always licked your anus on purpose." This is the level of so much of the writing, I'll refrain from giving any more details.
The other day I commented on the cringe-worthiness of THE CLEARING, in which a middle-aged actress plays a lengthy scene in the nude. What the actors have to say and do in INTIMACY is even more uncomfortable, although, unlike THE CLEARING (arguably), necessitated by the play’s requirements. If INTIMACY were funny, its situations believable, its themes explored with insight and dramatic interest, and its characters convincing, maybe, just maybe, it might have worked and the fuss would be irrelevant. As it is, however, it’s simply a rotten play with few redeeming values, and I’ve already said more about it than I intended.