NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
It generally holds true that the best part of a party takes place in the kitchen. For some reason, people get side-tracked by good, genuine conversation when they stop in to refresh their drink, and often spend the rest of the night there, wrapped up in unpretentious talk. That certainly seems to be the case in Smoke, though it’s likely the rest of the party was pretty darned interesting as well. Smoke (playing at The Flea through September 28) is a very compelling two-hander in which Julie (Madeleine Bundy) comes across John (Stephen Stout) in the kitchen, where he’s sneaking a smoke, an ironically verboten activity at a party which would otherwise appear to be without limitations. These two young, attractive hipsters are at a private BDSM party in a Harlem tenement. For the uninitiated, BDSM refers to “Bondage, Domination and Sado-Masochism,” and the party caters strictly to dedicated practitioners of the kink; we hear tell of activities in other rooms that range from the mild (spanking) to the extreme (blood and piercing play). This is neither a party for amateurs nor the faint of heart. Julie, however, is something of a novice, but being an attractive, sexy young submissive woman, she is a welcomed newcomer. What’s more, it turns out her father is a famous avant-garde photographer and artist . . . as well as John’s boss.
John and Julie’s conversation starts out innocently enough: she bums a cigarette (which he had hastily tried to conceal) and he flirts, lightly. Needless to say, however, the circumstance is awkward. Julie’s father, John’s boss, is an excessively demanding eccentric who calls his assistant (John) at all hours of the night with absurd needs and demands. In that job (at which he’s only been employed for three months), John is a toadie, sucking up at all costs in order to satisfy his own ambitions in the art world. Meeting his boss’s daughter at this fetish party presents all sorts of dilemmas . . . and perhaps opportunities? For Julie, the chance encounter is only mildly embarrassing. She doesn’t care about image: she’s spoiled, rich, arrogant, and angry enough at her father that she sees humiliating him as a positive, not a negative.
Eventually, an attraction builds, especially as they begin to share their fetish preferences with one another. Julie escapes her wealthy, seemingly easy life with the surrender of submissiveness. It’s new to her and she’s yet to find someone who really dominates her the way she wants. And John, fittingly, is a dominant who has a frightening predilection for penetrating his subs with one of the many knives in his collection. It’s somewhat common in the fetish world for those who have control over their everyday lives to be interested in surrendering it in their play; and those who are weak and controlled in their daily lives (like John and his severely subservient role as assistant to a famous artist), tend to have a dominant tendency in their kink. John is an extreme example, and yet vascilates in the moment as he and Julie bond sexually, he grabbing her hair violently and holding a knife to her throat, then meekly asking “how did that feel . . . you’re good?” Even in the scene, he can’t maintain his dominance.
The beauty behind Smoke is that though we don’t get a full picture of the emotional turmoil these two have endured over the course of their lives, we do get a visceral feel for it through their conversation and actions. These are damaged people who escape their pain with fantasy and role play.
Kim Davies’ sharp script gives us a realistic peek into both a moment (the party) and the inner life of John and Julie, without being cloying or pedantic (often a byproduct when delving into stories of secret worlds). Director Tom Costello does a terrific job of providing just enough tension and showing us just enough of the couple’s interactions without being gratuitous or overly explicit. To witness such scenes can be terribly uncomfortable, but here it is not, thanks also to terrific acting. Stephen Stout is a guy we all know: someone buried in a hipster persona who was never actually hip or cool. He is full of hesitation and fear, but so deeply wants to be in control that when we see flashes of it we both fear and pity him. And Madeleine Bundy is fantastic: part pouty sex kitten, part angry, empowered woman with tremendous sexual agency, she is anything but one or two dimensional. “I’m kind of an asshole,” she tells John at one point. But the thing is she’s both right and completely wrong. There is both intelligence and weakness in her, though she prefers the mantle of brash and arrogant. Perhaps she is too confident for her own good—so common among entitled 20-year-olds—but there is also the suggestion that she knows she’s out of her depth, both at the party and in life. Poor acting would have made Smoke a difficult play to watch, despite its strong writing, but Bundy and Stout pull it off so convincingly it’s hard to imagine they are anything but those characters in real life.
There are worlds that many of us will never know about, whether it’s due to a lack of interest or a lack of accessibility. What Smoke manages to do is invite us into a corner of one such world and demonstrate why it’s interesting, why it exists, and why those people, despite their unusual interests, are just like us. We never know who we’re going to run into in the kitchen at a party, but it’s always certain to be the best part of all.
Smoke. Through September 28 at The Flea, 41 White Street, TriBeCa (between Broadway and Church Street). www.theflea.org
Photos: Hunter Canning