“Domesticated” is the kind of play that big subscription houses are always on the hunt for: An entertaining domestic drama on a stimulating topic (the breakup of a marriage under scandalous circumstances), written by a reliable scribe (Bruce Norris, Pulitzer and Tony-winning author of “Clybourne Park”), performed by top-drawer thesps (Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf), and guaranteed to give auds something to talk (argue?) about on the drive home. In short, the kind of play you might just have to commission, which is just what Lincoln Center Theater did.
Norris is a painstaking writer and “Domesticated” is a very neatly constructed play. Judy (Metcalf) and Bill (Goldblum) are breaking up because Bill, a politician whose real-life models are legion, has done an incredibly dumb thing and been forced to resign his high public office. How dumb? Like you-know-who, Bill has been frequenting high-priced prostitutes for years (to the tune of $74,000), and an unfortunate bedroom accident has left one of his playthings paralyzed — and in a litigious mood.
In Act One, the scribe examines this humiliating situation from Judy’s point of view. Bill gets his rebuttal time in Act Two. Under Anna D. Shapiro’s heavily ironic direction, this battle of the spouses is put in perspective by its structural framework, a graphically illustrated biology lecture delivered by one of the couple’s two daughters. As Bill squirms, daughter Cassidy (played in deadly deadpan by Misha Seo) soberly explains how her father’s sexual behavior actually conforms to the sexual behavior (and its deviant variations) in the rest of the animal kingdom. (“The Blue Wildebeest, or gnu, displays dimorphic characteristics of the common variety….”)
Judy, of course, doesn’t hear a word of this lecture and wouldn’t believe a word of it if she did. She’s completely focused on firing off a nonstop and extremely shrill (not to say shrewish) diatribe against her husband — and right to his face. This act belongs to Metcalf (as wonderful here as she was in Broadway’s “The Other Place” last season), who makes a meal of it. Marshaling Judy’s outrage, she delivers a full-throated aria that, for all the raw pain and anger fueling it, is furiously funny.
Goldblum takes over in Act Two, as an unrepentant Bill seeks to defend his indefensible behavior in a series of scenes (in a bar, on the hunt, in the clinic where he’s found work) that actually reveal him as the louse he is. It’s a fearlessly repellent portrait of homo sapiens behaving like a beast and Goldblum makes no apologies and refuses to beg for mercy. “I will not be made to sit in penitent silence for the rest of my life!” is a line delivered with real heat. “I am a man, all right? Not some dog you get to discipline for pissing on your favorite rug!”
To make Bill’s misery worse, he is hounded by an unrelenting chorus of moral critics. Wife Judy at the head of the pack, of course, but also his bratty daughter Casey (Emily Meade, a sharp perf), his high-powered lawyer Bobbie (Mia Barron, loving this harpy role), and every stranger who happens to recognize him, including a transgender bar patron (Robin De Jesus, in high dudgeon) who calls him on his attitude toward women.
Interesting as it is, the play would be a lot more compelling if Norris only knew when to ease up on the harangues. With Metcalf taking her side, Judy makes a case with ease. Surprisingly, Bill makes a persuasive point or two himself. Whenever Judy is ahead, she goes over the top and says something horrid. Bill jumps the shark by doing something gross. And both of them lose all semblance of reality. The same applies to daughter Casey, Bobbie the mouthpiece, and even that outraged bar patron, who also become caricatures of themselves. Some people just don’t know how to quit when they’re ahead.