Shock Value

Thomas Bradshaw is a playwright known for shocking audiences and presenting taboos. He’s true to form in his new play, Dawn, now premiering at The Flea Theater. Yet, after one wades through the taboos he presents in Dawn one may ask, “What is the point of this play?” Hampton (Gerry Bamman), a wealthy man in his 60s, has wasted his family capital on alcohol. His first marriage has failed, he has alienated his family, and his daughter blames him for her personal problems. Hampton is an alcoholic with a capital “A.” He gargles Johnnie Walker, drinks a case and a half of beer when deprived of liquor, takes an inordinate amount of time to surreptitiously fill Poland Spring bottles with Bombay Sapphire, and then hides them throughout the house. Hampton’s new wife, Susan (Irene Walsh) is fed up with his alcoholism and impotence; she convinces him to go to detox. Laboriously, they then take minutes to dump the contents of the bottles into a large basin.

Another major plotline concerns Steven (Drew Hildebrand), Hampton’s 33-year old son, also a recovering alcoholic, who enters into a predatory incestuous relationship with his niece, Crissy (Jenny Seastone Stern), a seeming innocent who, we later find, masturbates on web cam during study breaks for paying middle aged customers.

With 25 scenes, each lasting a few minutes at best, Mr. Bradshaw is unable to develop these characters beyond the superficiality permitted by his chosen format. They become caricatures, stereotypes. As if his name alone doesn’t signal it, Hampton is the preppy, icy one. Susan is the spoiled desperate housewife. Laura is the acidic resentful daughter. And so on. Many of the serial scenes cohere only in an agonizingly linear way, like a soap opera.

There is no question that, with depictions of full frontal nudity, suggestively graphic pedophiliac sexual scenes, family violence and incest, Mr. Bradshaw is trying mightily to shock us. With each new transgression, though, I noticed that people around me rolled their eyes and giggled. They may have been shocked but only in the way that one finds a South Park episode shocking. And, yes, these parts are of the play are gratuitous, and, frankly, a bit insulting.

That’s because Mr. Bradshaw has got at least two separate plays here that he’s attempting to mash up, and it doesn’t work. Dawn wants to be a comedy but can’t seem to bring itself to make the leap. It oscillates between the farcical (the physicality of the fighting between the drunken Hampton and Susan is hilarious) and the solemnly didactic in the manner of a Davey and Goliath cartoon:

STEVEN: …I want you to know there is a solution. HAMPTON: What is it? STEVEN: Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another problem with the play is that solutions come so...readily. Hampton, after what appears to be a lifetime of agnosticism, abruptly finds religion after only token resistance. Laura (Kate Benson), his hysterically bitter daughter, who harbors a generation’s worth of vitriol for her father, unexpectedly blurts out, “Yes, Dad, I forgive you.” The ending, too, is wrapped up tidily, if violently and predictably.

Jim Simpson’s sometimes-questionable direction only adds to the contradictory nature of the play. Why, for instance, does an ensemble member pour a bottle of water on Hampton’s crotch, between scenes, in full view of the audience, to demonstrate that he has urinated in his pants? This drew peals of laughter from the audience.

Another ruined scene is one where Laura confronts Hampton for destroying her childhood. The script curiously calls for Steven to be in the laundry room, yet visible, masturbating with Crissy’s soiled panties. Despite plenty of physical room with which to work, Mr. Simpson situates all the characters so closely together that the spatial illusion is thwarted. Steven, rather than appearing shocking, looks like a child trying to distract the adults.

Gerry Bamman is strong as Hampton, urgently seeking his moral center. Another standout is the playful Laura Esterman as Nancy, Hampton’s first wife, with whom he improbably reconciles during the course of the play. Michael Goldsheft’s set is a serviceable room that must suffice as the setting for all 25 scenes. An LED board above the stage tells us when we are in “Crissy’s Room” or “Laura’s House,” but it’s more gimmicky than needed.

All in all, Dawn, generating more heat than light, is a disappointing effort by a celebrated young playwright.

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