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Paul Gross and Martha Burns in Domesticated.

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Domesticated
Written by
Bruce Norris
Directed by
Philip Riccio
Actors
Martha Burns, Paul Gross
Venue
Berkeley Street Theatre
City
Toronto

There are many stages – at least seven – to dealing with marital infidelity. When we first meet Judy, she has gone through the drinking stage – and is not yet at the stabbing stage.

"This is the going to be the monologue stage," she announces to her husband, Bill, an American politician whose cheating ways came to light in spectacular fashion after he accidentally left a 23-year-old prostitute dressed as a schoolgirl in a coma.

Martha Burns plays Judy in the Company Theatre's new production of Bruce Norris's intermittently interesting new comedy Domesticated, while her real-life husband, Paul Gross, plays Bill. It's the first time the two actors have teamed up since the television series Slings and Arrows. If you're hoping it provides an opportunity to once again see the two match wits with verbal sparring, you may be disappointed.

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After standing by her man during the ritual public apology, Judy speaks up and Bill keeps mum for the rest of the first act. Burns brilliantly burns with shame, anger and – despite it all – love as Judy suffers the embarrassment of a trial, television talk show appearances and having to break it to their daughters that they have to sell the summer home.

Meanwhile, Bill slouches by his woman in not-so-stony silence – his face passing through various stages of humiliation as his lawyer, Bobbie (Torri Higginson, styled after Marie Henein, Jian Ghomeshi's lawyer), outlines the full extent of his prostitution habit – not to mention other less illegal, but perhaps more betraying, forms of promiscuity.

In this first act, Domesticated – though it may trod on the over-familar ground of the American sex scandal – appears in unexpected form, a quiet male amid a cast of female characters. (Salvatore Antonio, the only other man in the 11-person cast, plays a transgender woman.)

After intermission, however, Bill gets to talk – and talk and talk he does, digging himself deeper and deeper. In a speech to a bartender, he suggests marriage is simply about the three Rs: "Restriction, Reproduction and Real Estate." Later, trying to re-enter his old profession – in heavy-handed irony, he was a gynecologist before going into politics – he finds it impossible to be patient with his patients. He even unleashes on his 17-year-old daughter, Casey (the excellent Kelly McNamee), whose teenage righteousness he reacts to with misogynistic sneering.

Here we enter familiar territory, for the American playwright Bruce Norris is best known for Clybourne Park – a comedy about race and real estate that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. He specializes in plays that are inevitably described as "explosive" or "incendiary" where characters, mostly white and usually male, briefly burst out of their polite bourgeois bubble to say the unsayable about race, class or sex. The comic, or cathartic, effect of those moments really depends on how much you believe in the idea that we live in an oppressive culture of political correctness – and that may depend on which columnists you read, or how much you pay attention to the no-holds-barred spew of the Internet.

In the case of Domesticated, Bill's outbursts of honesty – "For a man to want compassion from women is like a Nazi asking sympathy from a roomful of Jews" – seem like they emanate from a second-rate men's rights activist troll on Twitter. A middle-aged man explaining that it is simply his biological imperative to sleep around on his wife will not be shocking, but boring to many theatregoers.

Infidelity is not a new topic for the theatre, but one of its most enduring. Indeed, the Company Theatre – who is presenting this in conjuction with Canadian Stage – has returned to it time and time again – such as the question of whether nature or economics make men behave like animals in Franz Xaver Kroetz's Through the Leaves; and the banality of cheating among certain classes in Andrew Bovell's Speaking in Tongues. Co-artistic director Philip Riccio directed both of those plays, and he's in charge on this one, too. His latest take on the subject has a welcome sharpness to it, each scene clicking into the next, but the laugh lines in Norris's writing do not always land effectively.

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Gross, as always in his too infrequent appearances on stage, is an engrossing performer. His character dominates through silence in the first act – and he lets his natural charm curdle wonderfully in the second. (The play's structural feminism is ultimately fake – the female characters are trotted on primarily to shine light on Bill, with the sex workers and rape victims there only to set up punchlines.)

In the end, does Domesticated say anything that hasn't been said better or more stylishly in other plays? On the one hand, through a slideshow presentation about the animal kingdom, Norris suggests men are on a downward spiral in a society increasingly dominated by women, the nightmare scenario of men's-rights crew and Gamergaters. But the narrative itself shows up a man who, despite screwing up in every way, lands on his feet. Is it a cri de coeur for the Western male, or a depiction of the continuing triumph of white male privilege? It's an interesting Rorschach test for audiences, at least.

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