safeword. serves up titillation undercooked and awkward

Top Joe Chisholm, Jimmy Brooks, Maybe Burke and bottom Traci Elaine Lee. Photos by Mati Gelman (5)
Top: Joe Chisholm, Jimmy Brooks, Maybe Burke; Bottom: Traci Elaine Lee. Photos by Mati Gelman.

The Review: Midnight Theatricals’ safeword.

By Ross

With a crack of a whip, safeword., the new play written and directed by S. Asher Gelman (Off-Broadway’s Afterglow) dives into the implausible, exploring the BDSM world with four fundamentally different adults colliding in a NYC apartment complex. It’s an honest attempt to unmask the preconceived notions of this world, but unfortunately for all involved, the whole thing whips back and forth from pleasing to awkward, even when it’s not intended at the dinner table. The actors work their damnedest to keep it together, trying to find their truth and working hard to make the play feel real and important. It is as if the Dom of the group, Xavier, purposefully played by Jimmy Brooks (Off-Broadway’s Clockwork Orange), has just ordered it so. But just because he’s commanded it, doesn’t make it work, sadly. Maybe their safeword. is ‘undercooked’.

Joe Chisholm and Jimmy Brooks. Photos by Mati Gelman (1)
Joe Chisholm, Jimmy Brooks. Photos by Mati Gelman.

Xavier is the opening image, definitely on Top and dynamically lit in red (obviously), one flight above by lighting designer Jamie Roderick (DR2’s Accidentally Brave) with Kevin Heard’s (Off-Broadway’s The Hello Girls), sound design cracking the whip. It’s a strong compelling start, with a bare chested Submissive kneeling before him, even if it feels a bit exploitative, trying hard to be shocking in their play. The set feels equally dynamic, designed by Ann Beyersdorfer (Alliance’s Knead), at least for the opening scenes when the upper floor is slightly masked, made secret and removed from the more mundane. The play quickly shifts to the neighbor’s apartment, a carbon copy of each and every apartment in the building, where we are given the friendly bonding of Xavier’s partner, Chris, an intriguing but overly fussy portrayal by Maybe Burke (A.R.T./NY’s TB Sheets), and the young and friendly married woman, Lauren, intently portrayed by Traci Elaine Lee (Beautiful National Tour). Lauren lives with her restaurant chef husband, Micah, nervously portrayed by Joe Chisholm (Off-Broadway’s She Has a Name). He has a secret, one that is filling him to the brim with shame and guilt, while keeping him disconnected to his sweet and caring wife. It’s a personal internal struggle that the playwright progressively layers one complicated psychological issue on top of another. But his dirty little secret is going to come flooding out over the edges and alter the foursome’s casual dinner party into something far more cutting and dark. There are flashes of dominance, and messages of care, giving it a complicated but compelling edge, one that somehow leaves far too many questions psychologically adrift. The moment dangles good conceptual ideas on a hook just out of reach, while focusing the curious energy and the inquisitiveness on the BDSM component and lifestyle choices, which feels a bit less brave.

Maybey Burke and Jimmy Brooks. Photos by Mati Gelman (7)
Bottom: Maybe Burke; Top: Jimmy Brooks. Photos by Mati Gelman.

Lauren is equally filled to brim, as much as her husband, but with curiosity about Xavier’s work and his relationship with Chris. The dialogue by Gelman is somewhat simplistic and forced, sometimes leaning towards naturalistic moments, almost too bland in flavor, but shifting far too often into educational and preachy. The interactions feel like a public service announcement at times, selling the positivity of Chris and Xavier’s alternate lifestyle and laying a lot of questions at the feet of the hetero norms. It doesn’t really go deep or intriguing enough into any of the masked hallways and passageways of thought and impulse, even as the foursome try their hardest to make it sound important and real. The writing should have spent more time digging into that dark psychological terrain rather than making the characters wander for far too many minutes through the passageways and hallways of the maze-like set.  Gelman hasn’t created enough depth in his characterizations to make us interested in watching them be comfy on the couch, or ponder life and their internal struggles while standing in the kitchen or walking in the shadows. Micah’s cutting and burning is an oddly crafted addition, making humiliation and domination equal something akin to self-harm, two completely different psychologically dynamics. I may be wrong but these two things don’t go hand and hand, and although they might end up being a dual diagnosis within a person, it’s presented somewhat intertwined, which adds a layer that I’m not sure is intended or naturally authentic.

Traci Elaine Lee and Maybe Burke.Photos by Mati Gelman (9)
Traci Elaine Lee, Maybe Burke. Photos by Mati Gelman.

This short 95 minute play could easily cut twenty minutes if they tightened up the in between quiet or traveling moments, and give us some more insightful creations, especially the character of Chris, who tries their hardest to be inventive. progressive, and captivating, but they aren’t given enough backstory or a real authentic conflict to commit to. The overly complicated contractual betrayal seems more real for the straight couple downstairs, than for Chris and Xavier up on top. The hetero-ideal crumbles and the gay dynamic falters, but salvation isn’t obvious. I did appreciate that there are no easy answers or tidy conclusions, although Lauren’s new direction, in a somewhat light hearted moment with Chris, doesn’t really ring true enough to get behind. Love, partnership, and BDSM stumbles around together in the darkness of the safeword. dungeon, trying to find their way through bondage, discipline, dominance, and sadomasochism, both on the top or down below in the bottom apartment. The direction by Gelman gets in the way of the authentic action as it attempts to be informative and compelling, but falters much like the written word into titillation and exploitation. The interpersonal dynamics and the areas of interaction get in the way of itself, forcing the actors to run around half hidden pathways and hallways, hanging out of windows like they are extras in a twisted Avenue Q/50 Shades of Gray remodeling. For a show that wants to titillate and excite, safeword. falters, finding a way to be overly instructional and explanatory, and not as progressive, exciting, or interesting as intended.  Sadly and with great regret, all I can find to say, most tenderly, is “I’m done with you“.

Jimmy Brooks. Photos by Mati Gelman (6)
Jimmy Brooks. Photos by Mati Gelman.




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