Thomas Bradshaw’s gleefully ugly new drama, “Dawn,” is less a play than a prank. In fact, “drama” may not actually be the right word — the longer you think about the piece’s intentionally stilted dialogue and revolting set pieces, the more you may get the sense you’ve just sat through a bleak, black comedy, without getting the joke. In defense of the slow-witted, pedophilia, incest and pants-wetting are not terribly novel or funny ways to get an audience’s attention, and there are probably more deserving targets of scorn and derision than an elderly alcoholic and his ruined family.
For about 15 minutes, Bradshaw devotes his time to the minutiae of alcoholism, which actually is kind of funny, in a depressing way. Flea Theater a.d. Jim Simpson has given “Dawn” a pristine, non-naturalistic staging, and the combination of sound effects and mime used to create the show’s settings (designer Michael Goldsheft doesn’t appear to have had much to do) are as quiet an invitation to pay attention as we ever get.
As initially unpleasant hero Hampton Dempsy (Gerry Bamman) carefully hides his liquor all over the house, thinking his sportive bladder and overworked heart won’t give away the game, Bradshaw invites us to titter a little.
As the scenes progress and Hampton begins trying to recover, we hear more and more dialogue like : “I’m going to love you like the goddess that you are. Please forgive me, Susan, I promise that I’m going to start being the husband that you deserve.”
This, folks, is a gag. By the time “Dawn” is over, we’ve seen statutory rape, spousal abuse, murder and the utter destruction of a man trying to redeem himself, each indignity expressed with the same almost-funny earnestness.
The heaping helpings of irony ward off empathy at every turn, like giant quote marks around some of the most disgusting encounters in human experience — maybe it’s art, but it sure does make you want to take a shower.
It also appears to be the work of a guy with way too much time on his hands. Take Hampton’s son Steven (Drew Hildebrand, valiantly casting about for a character where there’s none to be found): Here’s a man who, for whatever reason, is rotten to the core. From the moment we see him in the same room with niece Crissy (Jenny Seastone Stern), speaking Bradshaw’s carefully-modulated exaggerations in gentle, teacherly tones, it’s clear he’s a child molester . Why do we care? Who wants to rehabilitate the pedophile play, a genre already worked to death by writers of wildly varying talents?
While we’re at it, why do we want to bother with theater that invites us to sneer at a poor old drunk who can’t get anything right? Does Bradshaw find depressed, cirrhosis-raddled alcoholics to be an insufficiently thwarted class of people?
The bottom line seems to be that Bradshaw is less interested in his characters’ relationships to one another than he is in his own relationship to the audience. That would be all well and good if he had some kind of point to make, or even spoke from experience, but “Dawn” feels like a narcissistic con — think one of the late Sarah Kane’s scripts reworked as a comedy (indeed, both writers have plays called “Cleansed”). Bradshaw has a knack for the theatrical and a gift for crafting watchable scenes — he just doesn’t appear to have anything to say.