It’s quite a surprise to see Thomas Bradshaw pull his punches. This is a playwright, after all, who has delighted at least twice in writing extended scenes of child molestation and once included a fantasy bit in which a black slave imagines having slaves of his own. Shy he ain’t. With “The Bereaved,” though, Bradshaw has a larger point to make about privilege, and his oversexed Grand Guignol style is reined in a bit in its service. He’s still dealing with the same nice, upper-class sitcom denizens he ravaged in “Dawn,” but this time he’s somewhat more pointed and cohesive.
“In order to maintain our lifestyle, we need to make around $350,000 a year,” says Michael Schwartz (Andrew Garman), underemployed new widower and father of the well-meaning Teddy (a very good Vincent Madero), a young man who devotes much of his time to self-abuse. Like the childlike characters in “Dawn,” Michael is both totally free from the legal consequences of his actions and utterly baffled by their biological cost. When inscrutable fate sends his wife Carol (McKenna Kerrigan) a heart attack after she inhales an avalanche of Bolivian marching powder, Michael calms himself and his wife’s best friend Katy (KK Moggie)… with more blow.
What follows is a sort of parody of maudlin deathbed scenes, as Carol arranges for Michael and Katy to get married and support themselves and Teddy, who is in the midst of discovering his flourishing sexuality with fellow high school student Melissa. She’s played by Jenny Seastone Stern, an extraordinarily game actress to whom something terrible is done in almost all of Bradshaw’s New York productions.
If you have any affection or empathy for anyone in this play, you will dislike it intensely and probably walk out. This is either the problem with or the joy of Bradshaw’s work to date: He demands contempt, or at least he presents you with such extravagant horrors, you have to wall yourself off from their emotional content. Scorn appears to be the easiest way to do that — and the preferred way in “The Bereaved,” where there’s little question about whether or not we’re allowed to find its events funny.
These characters’ mishaps get giggles, whether it’s teen pregnancy or accidental death. It’s a parody, just like Edward Albee’s “The American Dream,” and we’re invited to feel comfortable in our superiority. If we blink and get offended, we’ve lost the avant-garde game.
May Adrales directs the play with more irony than Bradshaw would probably like — the script has his stock note requesting a totally straight performance of its intentionally stiff dialogue and uncomfortable revelations. It’s a little hard to tell if that irony isn’t sometimes in the aud reaction, though: Most of the surprising content revolves around the characters’ sexual fetishes, and people coming to see a provocative play will always giggle at consensual sex. Lee Savage’s sets and Whitney Locher’s costumes are fine.
It’s a little frustrating to watch Bradshaw’s gifts manifesting themselves only occasionally in comprehensible social commentary. The moments that underscore the characters’ incredible privilege hit the mark perfectly, as when Carol tosses off a short line about Teddy wanting to eat dinner out (“He likes Bouley”). Considerate drug dealer Jamal (Brian D. Coats) is a terrific character who sets everyone on edge whenever he walks onstage, but he has only a handful of scenes.
Bradshaw excels at getting his audience’s attention, no question, and he clearly wants to give voice to his conscience. But with so many protective layers of irony and cruelty, it’s hard to feel anything.