Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan
One man’s pleasure is another man’s pain, so the saying goes. The world of BDSM scrutinizes this world and tries to unearth this fetish for those of us who may not be as familiar with this proclivity. Safeword, a new play by S. Asher Gelman, delves deeply into the psyche of one man’s overwhelming need to be a sub; that is to be submissive to a more dominant figure. If you can get past the all too convenient plot points, this play has rich material worth exploring.
What are the odds that Micah and Lauren live in the same building as Xavier and Chris, also a young couple? That seems reasonable enough until we learn that Xavier is Micah’s BDSM master, and they don’t discover this until they meet at a dinner party that Lauren threw because she befriended Chris somewhere, somehow. Somehow it is hard to buy into this premise. It is unfair to ask the audience to believe that Chris and Xavier live in the same building as Micah and Lauren, but are unaware of it. But if we can get past that, the dinner conversation between the couples is quite enlightening as we watch Micah squirm in the hot seat. Interestingly, Lauren adopts a surprising affinity for the world of Sadomasochism.
I don’t mean to set the wrong tone; the play is definitely worth seeing for the performances alone. This is a fine example of how talented actors can cover up a script that has contrived moments that are difficult to make believable. Jimmy Brooks is powerful as Xavier. He is scary as the dominant figure, but quickly shows us a completely different side as he plays the caring, sensitive aspect of his character as Chris partner. Traci Elaine Lee is superb as Lauren. Her role is emotionally demanding, but she proves that she is up for the challenge. She is stunning in her own right. Her journey from a young naive girl to a strong woman who can take on the world is praiseworthy. Also notable is Joe Chisholm as Micah. His need for domination and humiliation is palpable. He lets us in to a dark scary spot in his soul that shows incredible vulnerability. Maybe Burke does a fine job as Chris. He adds a sense of flair and lightens up this ominous place we find ourselves in, which is the heart of this play.
Maybe it was the fact that the plays runs 95 minutes without an intermission, but the play felt long to me. This holds true especially towards the end. Despite the momentary unearned plot points, I left this play impressed. It humanizes a taboo topic from which our society shies away. My hat goes off to scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer for making an immaculate set that adds a layer of class to a thought-provoking play. So go explore your darker side. Who knows what you may find.
Safeword plays now through July 7th at the American Theater of Actors, 314 W St. https://www.safewordtheplay.com/