11/04/2013 09:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: Bruce Norris's Domesticated Yay, Wallace Shawn's Grasses of a Thousand Colors Nay

We may never know what Hilary Rodham Clinton was thinking during the 1998 Monica Lewinsky episode or how Silda Wall Spitzer was reacting five years ago when Eliot Spitzer strayed or whether Huma Abedin was severely stand-by-your-man-tested a year or so ago over Anthony Weiner's vigorous sexting.

We might never know any of this, but Bruce Clybourne Park Norris has some ideas. He couches them in the wily and often funny Domesticated, at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse, where Judy Pulver (Laurie Metcalf) doesn't fight especially hard to contain her anger when it's revealed that high-ranking public office holder Bill Pulver (Jeff Goldblum) has not only visited a young hooker but that in a tussle he'd caused an accident that has the young woman hospitalized and in a coma.

Appealing to the inquiring-minds-want-to-know longings of the public, Norris follows the increasingly estranged Pulvers and their daughters, outspoken Casey (Emily Meade) and asthmatic adopted-from-Cambodia Cassidy (Misha Seo), as they're all less and less able to cope comfortably amid the financial setbacks and, more to the point, the deep psychological wounds.

For obvious dramatic purposes related to the unanswered Hilary-Silda-Huma situations, Norris has chosen to focus on Judy through his first act. As written and as the forever strong Metcalf plays her, she's a stunning, extremely intelligent woman, whose intelligence and good looks do little to bank her fires the more she learns about her husband's list of extra-marital flings--the worst, perhaps, a front-car-seat encounter with family friend and lawyer Bobbie (Mia Barron).

Among Norris's accomplishments during these proceedings is peppering unexpected humor into the tumble of scenes expertly directed by Anna D. Shapiro and quickly shifted about on an economical in-the-round Todd Rosenthal set. Many of the laughs emanate from a series of reports -- with accompanying overhead videos -- that Cassidy gives in a monotone on different male-female reproductive behaviors in the animal world.

(N. B.: As Cassidy's reports accumulate, the roles of the males become increasingly subordinate to the females, and surely the observations are part of the fun Norris has with speculating on the future of the human species if these betrayals continue.)

Whereas the first act of Domesticated unconditionally rewards the attention paid it, the second act succeeds less so. Having concentrated on Judy, Norris now switches his concern to Bill, who -- other than an opening appearance before cameras and mics to announce his resignation -- has said almost nothing else. Indeed, uncommonly handsome in his tailored suits (that's Goldblum for you), he has often been silenced by Judy who has no patience for anything Bill might say in his defense.

Now Bill, a gynecologist six years away from practicing for reasons of his political duties, attempts to resume seeing patients at a clinic he helped found. He runs into predictable complications. Not only does the current clinic head (Mary Beth Piel in one of four parts she plays) worry about women wanting to be treated by Bill for obvious reasons, but the patients balk as well.

Bill -- Goldblum nicely building the exasperation -- also has no easy time winning the confidence of Cassidy and Casey, deprived of college tuition funds and sore about it. He fares no less well when he invites Judy to his temporary rental and attempts to remind her of their college meeting when he serenaded her with a guitar under a dorm window. Though it doesn't at all look as if he's gotten anywhere, Norris seems at denouement to provide a semi-happy ending. But really. That really doesn't fly after the damage previously outlined.

Some of what affects the Pulverses' future depends on what happens to Becky (Aleque Reid, also playing other parts), the young girl whom Bill either pushed or didn't push to her unfortunate head injury. Her mother Jackie (Lizbeth Mackay) and she appear in television interviews (Karen Pittman, the interviewer) on which Bill and Judy gauge their status with the public, not too encouragingly.

Led by Metcalf and Goldblum (why won't someone import the Speed-the-Plow revival he did with Kevin Spacey a while back at London's Old Vic?), the Domesticated ensemble is expert. Not mentioned so far is Vanessa Aspillaga, who, as Pulver retainer Pilar, gets one of the play's biggest yuks with a simple "Uh-oh." She's fine in five other diverse roles. Robin De Jesus is a bar patron who's among the many figures arguing imbalanced man-woman relationships, which is another of the themes Norris energetically airs.

By the way, Piel, who also appears as Bill's sees-no-wrong-in-son mother, shows up regularly in a similar role on CBS's The Good Wife. So okay, Domesticated may not be the first to take on the Hilary-Silda-Huma condition, but for the most part, Norris gazes long and hard at it.


Bill Pulver isn't the only man on local stages having difficulty keeping his fly zipped. There's also Ben, some sort of grain developer. He's the protagonist of Wallace Shawn's Grasses of a Thousand Colors, at the Public (in collaboration with Theatre for a New Audience), where Shawn's outstanding earlier piece, The Designated Mourner, recently appeared.

Throughout his career, Shawn has made a habit of writing about weak men -- so much so that it's tempting to say he's unable to keep from putting within the proscenium versions of his worst fears about himself. His choosing to act in these Wallace Shawn-André Gregory Project projects would seem to confirm the theory.

I saw Grasses of a Thousand Colors at London's Royal Court four years ago. (The Designated Mourner was introduced at London's National Theatre.) I didn't like it very much and figured it would be greatly reworked before opening in New York.

Perhaps it has been in the four intervening years, but not so much that I've noticed. Again, Shawn's Ben, looking amusingly like Mister Magoo, delivers an only occasionally interrupted monologue on his amorous history with wife Cerise (Julie Hagerty) and mistresses Robin (Jennifer Tilly) and Rose (Emily Cass McDonnell). Ben also rambles on about the sexual attentions of a cat called Blanche. (Are Cerise, Rose and Blanche among the thousand colors?)

Shawn's lecture (a lectern is omnipresent on Eugene's spare and lovely set) takes place sometime in the future, as does The Designated Mourner -- in accordance with Shawn's undisguised belief that humankind is in an irreversible downward spiral. Perhaps he's right, but Grasses of a Thousand Colors doesn't help get his message across.

The most notable element of the discourse is Ben's incessant reference to his penis. Not only does Ben boast of its pleasures, but the women do, too. To Shawn's way of thinking, this may be illustrating a belief he has that men as a group today are overwhelming examples of arrested development. On that score he could be in league with André Malraux, who claimed in his memoirs that he'd never met a mature man.

For me, though, I was reminded of 3- and 4-year-olds who've just learned the words "penis" and "vagina" and can't resist exclaiming them repeatedly. That's a lot of exclaiming in a play that goes on -- with two intermissions -- for 3 hours and 20 minutes. I submit there are better ways to spend your time.