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A CurtainUp Review

"This began for me an essential theatrical partnership and was, for me, a seminal experience."
— Scott Elliott, about bringing downtown provocateur Thomas Bradshaw further uptown with his company, The New Group's production of Burning.
L-R: Daniel Gerroll, Keith Randolph Smith. (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)
The high hopes that I take with me when I go to see a new play usually fall into two categories: When it's a new play the hope is that it will live up or even improve upon its predecessor(s). When my experience with a playwright's work is less positive, my hope is that it will be more so this time around.

Thomas Bradshaw's Intimacy now having its world premiere att he New Group's home on Theatre Row falls into the second category. This company has for more than a dozen years more often than not succeeded in offering up unique, challenging, well-acted and superbly staged plays — many helmed by founding and artistic director Scott Elliott. Consequently, I hoped I would like Intimacy better than I did Thomas Bradshaw's Burning two years ago.

My hopeful feelings were boosted by a cast that included two actors whose work I like, Daniel Gerroll and Laura Esterman. Things continued to look promising as I entered the theater and took in the set by Derek McLane (he also designed Burning) with its cutouts of three suburban homes for the interiors on which what the press announcements described as a "surprising journey with three families in a multi-racial American town."

But a flag went up as I noted that the actors were all on stage even before the lights dimmed — a directorial device that almost always seems a bit gimmicky and an unnecessary strain on the actors. As I began watching Mr. Bradshaw once again playing his provocateur's game of sexual derring-do it quickly became clear that this would not be a seminal an experience for me, as Director Elliott declared it to be for him in his program notes.

Instead the first act's one hour felt much longer — despite the sly little send-ups of religion, racial prejudice and assorted graphic displays of triple x-rated orgasms (self-administered, missionary and non-missionary style).

In fairness to the author, a good many audience members were more amused than offended. The more outrageous the actions (a masturbation scene with a gushing climax, a defecation scene with realistic sound effects), the more likely for the theater to rock with loud bursts of laughter. That said, except for diehard Bradshaw fans, that laughter is as likely to be in support of the actors who gamely do their best to portray these cartoonish characters, all of whom as in Burning, lack complexity — and all of whom at some point shed their clothes. (I'm not sure if Mr Elliott being credited as costume designer is intended as a joke).

Intimacy works hard to be a satire with something meaningful and new to say about love, sex, religion and race. But it ends up being a rather sophomoric shlock-shockspiel that relies on graphically showing things not usually seen on stage or discussed among neighbors to get attention and laughs.

More realistic and narrow in scope than Burning, the plot this time revolves around Matthew (Austin Cauldwell), a teenager still grieving for the mother who died in an auto accident. Matthew is ready to move on, guided by his mother's advice to follow his heart and thus find happiness and make her proud.

But grief has also made life with James, his dad (Daniel Gerroll) difficult. James has quit his job in finance and become a born-again Christian. While he apparently doesn't need the income, he needs more than prayer to give meaning to his life. Leave it to Bradshaw to slyly turn Matthew's way of coping and making his mother proud of him into an answer to dad's depression. You see, if he's to take mom's advice to follow his heart in order to be happy, he won't go to college but become a filmmaker. What kind of films? You guessed it.. .pornography. And he doesn't have to go further than his neighbors for plot and actors!

While I've seen Daniel Gerroll in roles much more worthy of his talents, he actually manages to be quite funny, at least in the beginning when he's on his knees in his born-again mode. And young Mr. Cauldwell deserves some sort of medal for making his acting debut as the cast member most often naked. Video designer Olivia Sebesky spares the actors from too much time spent in the most squirm inducing examples of sexual congress. But with the stagehands bringing a king-sized bed to the stage at intermission, things continue along the consistently appalling and more silly than thought stimulating path.

Intimacy by Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: David Anzuelo (Fred), Austin Cauldwell (Matthew), Ella Dershowitz (Janet), Laura Esterman (Pat), Daniel Gerroll (James), Dlliotéa Julien (Sarah) and Keith Randolph Smith (Jerry)
Set Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Scott Elliott
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Sound Design: Shane Rettig
Video Design: by Olivia Sebesky
Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, inluding one intermission
The New Group at The Acorn Theatre 410 West 42nd Street
From 1/14/14; opening 1/29/14; closing 3/08/14
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 24th press preview
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