Off-Broadway Theater Review: INTIMACY (The New Group at the Acorn Theatre)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on January 29, 2014

in Theater-New York


As directed by Scott Elliott, Thomas Bradshaw’s ironically titled new comedy Intimacy is not for the squeamish. A male character literally masturbates to internet porn, stroking a formidable erection which the actor has trouble stuffing back into his boxer-briefs when the scene ends—talk about a game performer. This is just a taste of what happens in this occasionally entertaining but ultimately banal satire of middle-class suburbia; the show is filled with similarly explicit moments. At the risk of sounding like a blue-haired old lady who in her senility finds herself at the Acorn Theater instead of at the church bingo game across the street, I confess that I was barely able to sit through the two-hour performance.

Austin Cauldwell and Déa Julien in The New Group's production of "Intimacy."

Matthew (Austin Cauldwell), a 17-year-old high school student who wants to be a filmmaker like Lars von Trier, spends a lot of his time peeping through binoculars at his 18-year-old neighbor Janet (Ella Dershowitz) and masturbating. Matthew’s mother died suddenly years ago and he lives with his father James (Daniel Gerroll), a retired Wall Street financier and current born again Christian, who can’t seem to get over the death of his wife and is secretly “addicted” to masturbation and porn of the Barely Legal variety.

David Anzuelo, Laura Esterman, Keith Randolph Smith and Ella Dershowitz in The New Group's production of "Intimacy."

Their neighbors are Jerry (Keith Randolph Smith), a light-skinned black man, and Pat (Laura Esterman), a white woman who is ten years his senior. Both PhD-carrying liberals, they have very different reactions when they discover that their daughter Janet has chosen a career in porn: Pat is immediately supportive, while Jerry is shocked, disgusted and aroused.

Déa Julien and David Anzuelo in The New Group's production of "Intimacy."

The third family in this triad consists of Fred (David Anzuelo), a building contractor from Honduras, and his 17-year-old daughter Sarah (Déa Julien). A macho, tattooed man’s-man who secretly masturbates to gay porn, Fred has two concerns in life: that his daughter wins a scholarship to an Ivy League school, and that she remains a virgin. Sarah, meanwhile, has a crush on Matthew; she disallows penetration, yet gladly engages with him in frottage (sexual rubbing); this is both for pleasure and because she believes his ejaculate clears up her acne.

Austin Cauldwell and Déa Julien in The New Group's production of "Intimacy."

Mr. Bradshaw’s goal seems to be to strip off the facade of propriety from American bourgeoisie middle-class suburban culture, exploring its taboos and exposing its hidden perversions and repressed sexual desires. His script has a good deal of humor and starts off quite nicely, setting up distinct characters and building the foundation for potentially compelling comedic drama. But towards the end of the first act the rigging of his dramatic craft begins to come loose as the characters’ struggles to overcome taboos start to feel pat and unsatisfying. And upon our return from intermission we find the sails flailing, the rudder gone, and the ship being tossed hither and thither by chaotic waves of meaningless revelations and an unlikely plot that eventually sink this absurdist farce of a vessel in an ocean of grotesque banalities; as I squirm in my seat I pity its doomed, valiant crew of performers.

Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz and Daniel Gerroll in The New Group's production of "Intimacy."

With the right direction, the show could be tremendously better. Derek McLane’s rich and versatile set and Russell H. Champa’s lighting, which successfully divides time and space, are used effectively, but Mr. Elliott’s concept is flawed. As with the playwright, Mr. Elliott deals with taboos, but in his case they are theatrical ones. His bombastic attempts to shock only exacerbate the script’s failings, as well as introduce another set of problems regarding nudity. Recalling the actor’s stubborn erection, nudity isn’t always controllable to the extent a director might need; and if the drama is weak, nudity has a tendency to overwhelm it to the point that we have a stronger reaction to the naked actor than to the world being created on stage, which takes us out of the story.

Daniel Gerroll and Keith Randolph Smith in The New Group's production of "Intimacy."

Another naked truth: The masturbating character performs oral sex on another male character, but although the receiving actor is nude, the giver is obviously sucking on a dildo. This begs the question: What is the logic of this world? You have a real penis and then expect the audience to buy a plastic phallus as real? It doesn’t work.

Laura Esterman and Keith Randolph Smith in The New Group's production of "Intimacy."

Mr. Elliott’s direction starts off well but soon lacks specificity; beats aren’t sufficiently worked out, and subtlety is lacking. He seems to direct the script as written with the result being that everything happens too fast and feels too easy. The cast, though capable and certainly courageous, is unable to correct for this lack of proper leadership. They do what they can and the result is adequate but unremarkable. The one exception is Mr. Gerroll as James; his dry delivery, precise comedic timing, and the patient playing out of every beat gives weight to the religious porn-lover’s struggles, lending authenticity and allowing us to truly empathize with him.

Daniel Gerroll, Ella Dershowitz, Austin Cauldwell and Déa Julien in The New Group's production of "Intimacy."

photos by Monique Carboni

The New Group @ Theatre Row
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
scheduled to end on March 8, 2014
for tickets, call 212.239.6200 or visit Telecharge
for more info, visit The New Group


John Smith July 29, 2018 at 5:00 pm

I can’t believe plays like this are even allowed. Besides being sexually explicit and featuring lots of nudity, the audience is exposed to simulated sex acts. I heard lots of people walked out. This is trash, from the puerile mind of a perverted director. I hope plays like this are banned in the future.

Peter F. July 30, 2018 at 12:25 pm

While I agree that explicit sex is overused to make a point, especially in movies, it’s startling, John, that you didn’t even see this play, yet you want it banned. Shades of fascism…

Sam Adams May 29, 2020 at 2:24 pm

No it is not fascism, since obscenity is not actually protected under the First Amendment. It’s just that nobody, apparently, wants to try before courts of law cases of obscenity, possibly afraid that nothing will become obscene.

But here is the truth in real life: when we assess the character of a person, we have very limited information to go on since we don’t get to watch them have sex or masturbate or do anything else like that. The only time we ever see other people nude, besides our spouse, is at the gym in the shower and only then with someone of the same sex.

The sex acts whether simulated or real are designed for prurient interest only. Whether it is for film, television or theater, it is all about getting the audience sexually excited allowing individuals to use the actor as a sexual object … which takes us to the next point. That point has to do with power. Clothing is actually a form of armor, not against knives for bullets but from the sexual gaze. One can fantasize to some degree about a person who is clothed but it’s somewhat limited since they don’t have a clue about what the person looks like really. Nudity in a proper married relationship has to do with shedding of power in order for there to be intimacy. And that intimacy is not shared with other people. A case of film or television in which the actors’ behavior becomes accessible for all time — having been recorded — it allows people a sort of sexual abuse in the form of a masturbatory fantasy. Actors have given up their modesty, dignity, and most preciously, their power. And they can never get it back. It is out there forever. Some actors, I suppose, do it because they have emotional issues and seek approval, but they are used and abused by casting directors and producers, who get some form of nominal consent. But is it true consent if an actor is emotionally damaged? Other actors may be afraid of losing their livelihood by not cooperating, and that is definitely not real consent either.

One final observation. Nudity would make a performer vulnerable, but the actor or actress simply needs to be emotionally available and that is a very different thing.

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