Brian D. Coats, Andrew Garman, McKenna Kerrigan, Vincent Madero, Brian J. Maxsween, KK Moggie, Jenny Seastone Stern, Christopher T. VanDijk
Thomas Bradshaw is beginning to make a name for himself in the New York theatre scene. After plays like Cleansed, Purity, and Strom Thurmond Is Not A Racist, all provocative pieces dealing with race, human sexuality, people’s concepts of perversion, drugs, and a host of other controversial topics, the shocking nature of his work threatens to overwhelm the content of his plays, which pack a significant wallop.
Much as one would worry for the reputations of writers like Edward Bond and Sarah Kane, whose plays at the Royal Court in England were ushered in more with controversial Op-Ed pieces in the newspapers than positive notices, one worries that audiences will walk away from Bradshaw’s plays with a sense more so that what they saw was shocking than that it was emotionally honest.
Still, somehow, Bradshaw manages to accomplish exactly his desired effect. In his latest effort, The Bereaved, currently playing at the Wild Project in the East Village, there’s no end to the mayhem. Characters are constantly snorting coke, there’s on-stage nudity and sex (including an instance of anal rape involving black face), plenty of harsh language and exaggerated racial stereotyping. And in spite of all this, what ultimately comes through is the sense that Bradshaw’s aim is not merely to shock but to hold up a hyperreal mirror to his audience, seeming to say “This is what you guys look like, or at least it would be if you were just a tetch more hardcore.”
The Bereaved focuses on a family in the wake of crisis. Michael is an adjunct professor whose wife Carol, a big shot lawyer, finds herself in the hospital when she snorts a celebratory line of coke after winning an important case. Facing possible death due to complications, Carol prepares for her family’s continuance after her death, arranging for her husband to marry her best friend Katy, assuming that this will be the best scenario for her 15-year-old son Teddy.
Meanwhile, Teddy reacts to the situation by turning to cocaine as well, with the help of his girlfriend Melissa and her dealer Jamal. Eventually, the situation gets out of hand, and Michael, as the would-be breadwinner of his new household, finds himself sending Teddy and Melissa out to sell drugs in order to earn the family’s keep.
The madness resultant from these situations is riddled with black comedy, but Bradshaw’s impressive strength is in leaving the humor to develop out of the play’s situations rather than mining for easy laughs. Despite many of the shocking situations throughout, there aren’t many moments where one feels that Bradshaw was writing merely to illicit winces or guffaws. This is thanks in part to the swiftly-paced, farcical direction of May Adrales, who keeps Bradshaw’s dialogue snappy and well-timed, as well it should be.
Make no mistake, Bradshaw certainly intends to provoke, as most good plays do. “This is sick,” one audience member across the aisle from me blurted out during a quiet moment in the play. But could that audience member truly say he saw none of him- or herself somewhere amongst the exaggerated mishaps on stage? It’s doubtful.
After the many moments of laughter subside, there’s a lingering sense of awkwardness in the air when an audience has to question itself: “Why do we think this is funny in the first place?” This is Bradshaw’s impressive gift as a playwright, to capture what real people do and exploit it for his own dramatic purposes. The Bereaved, a rather impressive entry in Bradshaw’s ever-expanding oeuvre, is no exception and should not be missed by those seeking out the best new writing.