Thomas Bradshaw is a 33-year-old black American playwright who might as well have his middle name legally changed to Provocative, because no one seems to be able to talk or write about his work without conjuring that adjective. The most recent of his 11 plays, “Intimacy,” has been playing Off Broadway for the last two months; the production at the New Group concludes its run March 8. I’m fascinated by this play not just as a theater scholar but also as a sex therapist. Bradshaw’s plays almost always address hot-button issues of race, class, and sexuality very directly and explicitly. His previous play, “Burning,” performed at the New Group two years ago, took off from the Marquis de Sade’s “Philosophy in the Bedroom” and included several extremely graphic scenes of simulated sex by naked actors only a few feet away from the audience. “Intimacy” goes even further by taking as its main subject the prevalence of pornography in American culture, specifically as it plays out among three suburban families.
Let me see if I can summarize the plot succinctly. Matthew is a white high-school senior and aspiring filmmaker whose Wall Street financier father, James, is still deep in mourning for his wife, a doctor run over by a reckless driver. Matthew spends a fair amount of time masturbating while spying on his classmate and neighbor, Janet, the voluptuous blond daughter of a mixed-race couple, Pat and Jerry, though he’s dating Sarah, the daughter of Fred, the Latino contractor who is renovating his father’s house. Sarah is determined to remain a virgin at least until prom night, but because she and Matthew are both hormonally alive teenagers, she shows him how to engage in frottage to enjoy sexual pleasure together while preserving her virginity.
Although James has become a born-again Christian seeking solace in the church, he also consoles himself by looking at pornographic magazines. He becomes outraged when he discovers that Janet has a budding career in porn, which her schoolmates (including Matthew and Sarah) know about and accept, as does Janet’s mother. James confronts Jerry about his daughter’s scandalous profession, and Jerry becomes furious until Pat reminds him that they enjoy looking at pornography together and that his objections are hypocritical.
Meanwhile, Fred’s wife works day and night at WalMart, so he lets off steam by masturbating to gay porn. Rather than waste money on college tuition, Matthew has talked his father into buying him an expensive camera and giving him start-up funds for a first film, which Matthew decides should be a porn film about frottage starring Janet, with everybody else in the play as supporting characters.
Thanks to the brave cast and the uncompromising direction, the show is full of alternately hilarious and squirm-inducing sex scenes that they can’t help eat up a lot of the audience’s attention. The actor playing Matthew (Austin Cauldwell, making his professional debut) handles his prosthetic penis with aplomb, twice sending projectile liquids flying through the air close enough to produce squeals from people sitting in the front row. Two or three scenes of simulated sex being filmed are interspersed with clips from actual porn projected onto a large screen. It’s difficult to pay attention to a conversation Matthew and Sarah (Déa Julien) have while standing in front of a screen showing a scene from “Deep Throat.” And the actor playing Fred (David Anzuelo) actually manages to drop trou and display a throbbing erection on cue, not once but twice during the play, which I must say I’ve never witnessed before in all my years of theatergoing – at least not outside the late, lamented Gaiety Burlesk strip joint in Times Square. This is clearly wicked fun on the part of the playwright and the director Scott Elliott, who writes in a program note: “There is nothing you’ll see in ‘Intimacy’ that you haven’t seen before; it’s just that when it’s onstage, it is impossible to ignore.” It’s only after you’ve recovered from the shock of seeing rampant nudity and sexuality acted out on the stage that it’s possible to assess what the play is getting at, which turns out to be quite a lot.
Bradshaw’s playwriting is deceptively simple on the surface. He portrays recognizable human beings speaking everyday language in familiar settings. But his characters speak the supernaturally straightforward language of comic books – no poetry, no subtext, no beating around the bush. “I’ve got to get fucked on camera now,” Janet (Ella Dershowitz) says to her father (Keith Randolph Smith). “I don’t need your patriarchal double standards distracting me.” It takes a little while to realize that even though the tone has the cheerful brightness of TV sitcoms, the subject matter is distinctly adult, and there’s an edgy humor to it. In these ways, Bradshaw is a kindred spirit to non-naturalistic comic playwrights like Christopher Durang and Wallace Shawn.
Bradshaw manages to pull off two other seemingly contradictory strategies. His plays have a kind of earnest teaching quality reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s politically minded Lehrstücke, “learning plays” that impart practical or ethical instruction to audiences. Intimacy contains a string of what almost seem like public-service announcements, brief conversations that convey small, important lessons: how homophobia contributes to transgender suicides, when to schedule a colonoscopy, how different people live out their bisexuality, the statistics about guns in the home being used against their owners, the various ways to engage in frottage (non-penetrative sex), the sensitivity a woman requires for sex after having an abortion. That’s a lot of ground to cover in one play!
Simultaneously, Bradshaw steals a page from classic French farce by having his earnest, plain-spoken characters take actions that seem perfectly rational at first but slowly escalate from slightly absurd to completely outrageous. The desire of Pat (Laura Esterman) to support her daughter’s dreams unconditionally seems reasonable enough. But that leads directly to viewing one of her porn videos with her husband and encouraging him to stop thinking “I’m watching my daughter have sex” and replace that thought with “I’m helping her further her career,” which is a little more dubious and sounds like something a character in a Joe Orton play might say. As a precocious student of cinema, Matthew admires the films of Jonas Mekas, Lars Von Trier, and Rainer Fassbinder, but when he decides that making porn is his calling, he looks back to 1970s skin flicks with a rosy-eyed view of porn as art about “watching souls connect,” which is a debatable way of describing “Deep Throat.”
For me, the most interesting aspect to the play was its acknowledgement that everyone has some kind of relationship to pornography these days. And the characters model the kinds of conversations we might have with each other about pornography if we weren’t afraid to talk about it. I appreciate that these conversations don’t fall predictably into one category (Yay! Porn is great!) or another (Boo! Porn is bad!). Jerry and Janet’s discussion about whether porn exploits women brings up compelling points without favoring either position. The conflict for James (Daniel Gerroll) between his religious beliefs and his sexual desires is genuine, as is Janet’s wondering whether what drives his interest in porn isn’t so much addiction as simply loneliness and lack of physical affection since the death of his wife. The play addresses sexual shame in a way that is humorous, blunt, and poignant, as when Jerry confesses to Pat, “I thought you would think less of me if you knew I had an obsession with licking buttholes.”
The farcical elements of the play are Bradshaw’s way of provoking dissent and debate among the viewers (again, a Brechtian theatrical strategy). When Fred asserts that it’s OK for his teenage daughter to appear in porn as long as there’s no penetration, the playwright is asking you to decide: is that reasonable or ridiculous? Is extreme permissiveness good parenting, or not? The parents arrive at the conclusion that if they enjoy pornography, it’s only fair to assume that it’s OK for their kids. True or false? And how does that apply to casual racism and financial exploitation?
The play cleverly juxtaposes the organic/fumbling/authentic sexual interactions among the characters with the stylized costumes and behavior of the porn scenes that Matthew films, highlighting the contrivance and behind-the-scene maneuvering required to make sex look “real” on camera. After shooting scenes involving all the characters (including oral and anal sex, frottage and ejaculation), Matthew makes a speech that hilariously parodies a director’s wrap-up: “When we began this artistic endeavor I thought it was about frottage. But after being with all of you, and witnessing the emotional and transformative breakthroughs that we’ve gone through together, I now see what my film is really about. It’s about intimacy. It’s all about intimacy.”
I don’t think the playwright intends for us to take this speech at face value, though. Matthew may think that everybody in the neighborhood getting naked and having sex together on camera constitutes intimacy. Does the playwright agree? Do you?