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NY Theater Reviews

Laurie Metcalf and Jeff Goldblum/ Ph: Joan Marcus

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

By SANDY MACDONALD

Hot playwright Bruce Norris examines the fallout when a man wants it all, and then some.

Given that the CBS hit series The Good Wife is deep into its fifth season, one would think that the humiliated-political-spouse trope ought to be pretty well played out – and yet the headlines keep providing fresh fodder. With his latest work, hot-button playwright Bruce Norris (whose Clybourne Park, about gentrification, won a Tony, a Pulitzer and an Olivier in 2011manages to keep the dialectic fresh and crackling.

He’s aided immeasurably by Anna D. Shapiro’s swift and sure-handed direction. The play is staged in the round, rather like a prize fight. In this corner, all but silent during act one (after an evasive excuse for a public apology): feckless serial philanderer Bill Pulver (Jeff Goldblum) – a former gynecologist and, until very recently, a promising politico of some unspecified stripe (secretary of health, perhaps?). On the offense, his worthy opponent: wife Judy (Laurie Metcalf), whose sickly smile at the podium quickly gives way, in private, to a maelstrom of tongue-lashings.

The couple’s older daughter, Casey (Emily Meade), depicted as a marvelously snotty and opinionated princess/provocateur, is quick to pick up any opprobrium slack – not that Judy overlooks any opportunity to exercise her shaming rights. Meanwhile, younger sibling Cassidy (Misha Seo), a Cambodian adoptee, does her best to stay out of the fray – although, under stress, her asthmatic wheezes speak volumes.

A school project of Cassidy’s frames the action. To the click and whir of a slide show (projected overhead), Cassidy narrates her study of “sexual dimorphism” within the animal kingdom. Tellingly, her examples segue from relative gender parity to some staggering differentials (e.g. certain deep-sea denizens whose males never develop beyond the stage of larvae “living in colonies within the female’s genital sac”).

It’s an apt-enough metaphor for post-scandal Bill, who attempts to strike out on his own in act two – inevitably a bit of a letdown, mostly because we’re missing Metcalf in spitfire mode (Norris provides Judy with some lethal zingers), and also because Bill turns out to be at once more and less pusillanimous than he appears at first glance. His lack of real repentance – Norris gives him the slippery speech patterns of a born prevaricator – devolves into bitterness. Once Bill assumes the victim’s stance, any empathy is hard-won – which may be precisely Norris’ goal, to explore that discomfiting crevice between political correctness and personal shortcomings.

The play is not perfect. We could dispense, for example, with the tired gambit of an Oprah clone (Karen Pittman, compounding the cliché) – although our collective tendency to capitalize on private woes as spectator sport is certainly a point worth underscoring.

Norris never specifically shows Judy wavering with regard to the couple’s chances of rapprochement. She’ll go only as far as maintaining appearances, pro tem. Still, Metcalf manages to suggest all the attendant emotional turmoil – the wounded pride and crushed hopes. She’s a marvel to behold – a very good wife indeed, subgenus wronged.