New York’s Naughtiest Show (Maybe Avoid the Front Row)
The surprise really came—wrong word, perhaps—with the almond milk. At the first preview performance of the play Intimacy last Tuesday, it shot forth from actor Austen Cauldwell’s tumescent penis, or what looked like his tumescent penis, landing on some unfortunate audience member, or diligent theatrical prompt, right at the front. A tube of lubricant also flew into the stalls as a duvet was swiftly scooped up.
The play was so sodden with sex and nudity, and talk about sex and desire and pornography, the audience left dazed. Was it really just almond milk, I wanted to know afterwards? When was a penis prosthetic used as opposed to the real thing? Cocks and crevices kept appearing on TV screens. Whose were they? The playwright Thomas Bradshaw and Scott Elliott, Intimacy’s director, said these were “stage secrets” they wanted to keep, though Elliott revealed there “might” be sugar in the ejaculatory mix, “for the right consistency.”
Nudity on stage isn’t new, of course. Daniel Radcliffe famously shed his clothes, and image as forever-Harry-Potter, in a stage adaptation of Equus. Back in the 1970s, the cast of Hair freaked out with flesh showing. In recent years, partial or full nudity has been seen in productions like King Lear (where Ian McKellen won audience admiration not just for his searing performance) and the cancer drama Wit, where Cynthia Nixon’s dramatic shaving of her head overshadowed her disrobing. Last year, The New York Times’s Ben Brantley noted that there was so much nakedness on Broadway stages, it was becoming standard.
The shenanigans of Intimacy will shake any jaded theater fan from nudity ennui. The play, showing off-Broadway under the aegis of The New Group, is surely the most ribald stage show currently running in New York. The play is about three suburban family units: a father, James (Daniel Gerroll) grieving his dead wife, living with his sex-obsessed son Matthew (Cauldwell), and becoming slightly bug-eyed about youthful sexual wantonness, in the manner of Piper Laurie in Carrie, which conceals his own sexual desires. Another father, David Anzuelo’s Fred, fiercely protective of daughter Sarah (Déa Julien) as she embarks on a horny affair with Matthew, has secrets of his own—and underwear to shed when he does. Then there’s Jerry (Keith Randolph Smith), Pat (Laura Esterman) and daughter Janet (Ella Dershowitz): the latter, it emerges, is a porn star with much to teach her parents.
To say more would ruin the play’s many blithely scripted surprises. But what’s shocking about the nudity is less the flesh and more the breezy tone and content as sexual barriers tumble down. The biggest audience “ewww” came when Jerry pulled his boxers down to sit on the john, letting forth a splattery-sounding fart. “Oh my gaaaddd,” said the woman in front of me when a naked Ella joined her clothed father on the couch—he imagined her doing so—to tell him it was OK if he finds the pornography she features in a turn-on.
Meanwhile, Fred—having stripped off—insisted Matthew have sex with him, even though the latter is having sex with his daughter. Boundaries between gay and straight and public and private dissolve. Frottage, rather than penetration, becomes the gold-standard sex Matthew aims to show in a porn video he makes with all members of the group, including his father.
One night, says Bradshaw, the actors heard someone exclaim from the stalls, “Nooo, that’s disgusting, but I can’t look away.”
“Working on a play like this is not another job,” he says. “You can’t phone it in. We’re asking the actors to be bold and brave.” He grew up in a wealthy suburb of New Jersey, “where you would be surprised at one went on behind closed doors.”
Elliott says that while that making the actors feel “comfortable” was important, “they knew what they were signing up to.” They stayed clothed during early rehearsals, before going nude—ironically —during dress rehearsal. While sex and nudity also featured in a previous Bradshaw play, Burning, Elliott sees Intimacy as a “romantic comedy with very naughty parts.” The nudity of the characters corresponds to the thematic preoccupations of the play, he says. As for the audience gasps and occasional exclamations, “That’s what theater should be,” says Elliott. “I love it when people express what they’re feeling.”
“I never set out to shock anybody,” insists Bradshaw. “On its own that would not be a very interesting endeavor.” The play focuses on porn because of its mass-presence in culture, he says. “Nudity does not feature in all my plays, but I believe theater should be a visceral experience. People are so used to the traditions of the theatrical landscape—how action unfolds, how people behave, how speech follows speech, how they dress, individual human psychology is reduced. You can feel the playwright judge the characters.” Such plays “rarely echo how people relate in the real world where they can act in irrational ways.”
Well, I’m not sure they behave in the real world like the characters in Intimacy either, but when I tell Bradshaw how jolting their sing-songy voices are discussing sex, desire, and relationships—big issues resolved cartoonishly quickly, with a marked lack of agonizing or examination—he laughs and says their voices are like an unfettered id. Forget the gasps, he says: at a recent performance he saw “one older lady look at her husband and touch her heart during the last scene.” He surprises me by saying he didn’t intend it as a sex comedy, but rather as a portrait of a man negotiating the grieving process.
As for the actors, Cauldwell, who for much of the time is naked, partially clothed, or rubbing, jutting, and spurting with a sweaty commitment to his craft, says “people are only shocked because they are watching what they do in everyday life. We’re not trying to make sexy images, we’re trying to be real.”
It’s not a difficult role to play, he says, because he first went nude in plays at college and “because rehearsing it means you get desensitized.” Cauldwell (21, playing a 17-year-old) hasn’t got genuinely erect yet, “because while I don’t mind being naked, I’m still in public.” He has more than one prosthetic penis at his disposal.
It is Dershowitz’s first experience of being naked on stage. “I’m nude four times in the show,” she says. “I absolutely love it. A friend said nudity is just a costume, that it’s not my body, but my character’s body.” She pauses and laughs. “That’s not how you feel. Like, you’re on stage nude. But it’s like being in someone’s living room. You’re very aware people are watching you. But we forget we’re naked. The scenes make much more sense with your clothes off. I don’t feel exposed, although when we did our first technical run-through I realized I was naked in front of more people in one moment than in my whole life.”
Dershowitz’s favorite nude scene is non-sexual, when she puts lotion on her body, “like people do at home anyway.”
The play is about intimacy not sex, the 23-year-old actress says, though laughs that her friends called it “the naked play, that porn star part” when she first got the job. “Later I told them, ‘No, it’s not about that.’”
She doesn’t mind if people come for the nudity, “though afterwards, if they came up and said, ‘You have a great body,’ they might be missing the point.” She has deliberately not gone to the gym to hone a sculpted body for public show, “because that would be another form of costume. I didn’t want to look like a porn star.”
So, pervy theatergoers, be cautioned there is seriousness alongside all the jiggling penises and breasts.
I try one final time to ascertain with Bradshaw what is in the ejaculatory mix. “Well, it might be semen,” he jokes. “Maybe we should give the front row plastic sheets to wear.” We both agree that would be a publicity, um, masterstroke.
Intimacy is at The New Group, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, until March 8