Bruce Norris's biting comedy asks if philandering men are just naughty by nature.
Bruce Norris’s 2013 satire about a politician brought down by a sex scandal is framed by a school presentation given by the pol’s middle-school aged daughter, Cassidy (Emily Chang). The topic: Sexual dimorphism in the animal world. The device, along with Norris’s title, parallels the argument that Bill (Tom Irwin), disgraced, increasingly frustrated but never really contrite, eventually makes: that marriage and monogamy are unnatural and misery-making behaviors.
But Norris makes Bill earn that caustic declaration. After his initial resignation speech, more acknowledgement than apology, Bill doesn’t get another word in for most of the first act, which documents the fallout for his kids (Melanie Neilan portrays Cassidy’s older sister, Casey, with perfectly insufferable teen self-righteousness) and his wife, Judy. The latter is played by the spot-on Mary Beth Fisher with increasingly withering fury as she learns the full extent of her husband’s transgressions.
Bill gets his turn in Act II, letting loose on a female bartender (Rae Gray) about the true purpose of marriage as it’s practiced today: “restriction, reproduction and real estate.” He follows with a startlingly ugly recollection of the birth of his first child. Bill's rhetoric only gets uglier as he attempts to return to work (a gynecologist by profession, his newfound infamy as a man who frequents prostitutes makes doctor-patient relations rather complicated), and Irwin is convincingly corrosive.
But as persuasive as the performances are in Norris’s Steppenwolf production, and as smartly rendered in Norris’s dialogue (which is often more monologue), the arguments feel a little old-hat. As Todd Rosenthal’s gymnasium-like set suggests, this is old-fashioned battle-of-the-sexes stuff. But if Bill and his increasingly MRA-style outbursts represent Team Men, we deserve to lose.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Written and directed by Bruce Norris. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15 mins; one intermission.