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Smoke

The Flea presents an even kinkier update of Miss Julie.

Madeleine Bundy as Julie and Stephen Stout as John in Kim Davies' Smoke, directed by Tom Costello, at the Flea Theater.
(© Hunter Canning)

Up-and-coming dramatist Kim Davies brilliantly catapults Strindberg's Miss Julie into the 21st century with Smoke, a smart, disquieting new play at The Flea Theater directed by Tom Costello. Shades of David Ives' Venus in Fur also spring up throughout this two-character dark comedy, but Davies isn't emulating styles here. Her taut, 75-minute one-act is as original as it gets, signifying the very welcome arrival of a daring new playwright for the downtown scene.

Like Strindberg and Ives before her, Davies explores the most basic of human desires: sex and power. The action is set in a cramped kitchen in Harlem, on the outskirts of a sex party being held on the other side of the wall. Thirty-one-year-old John (Stephen Stout) is in there having a smoke when 20-year-old Julie (Madeleine Bundy) enters on the hunt for a cigarette. John sizes her up immediately: She's a submissive who wants to have a good time. He's a brooding dominant who can give it to her.

One of the more striking aspects of Davies' script (along with its sharp wit) is that you're never sure who has the upper hand, as she constantly turns the tables on her characters. At times it seems like it's John, the scruffy hipster dressed in all black (costumes by Beth Goldenberg), who's hiding a set of knives in his satchel. But it could easily be the wide-eyed Julie, who's still trying to find fulfillment in her unfulfilled life. Or is it really Julie's unseen but ever-present father, a world-renowned photographer who happens to be John's boss?

As if there weren't enough tension already on display, Costello's claustrophobic staging in the Flea's black box keeps hearts pounding. The action is confined to a single corner in the oblong playing space; Andrew Diaz's cramped set is filled with minefields in the forms of tables, chairs, and other kitchen paraphernalia. The director guides his actors, two members of the Flea's resident acting troupe The Bats, into vivid, believable performances that verge at times on scary. Bundy's deceptively wide-eyed demeanor and Betty Boop voice hides the shrewd minx that Julie truly is, while Stout, swarthy and menacing, gives off serial-killer vibes. Together they are an indomitable pair, bringing a weird, quirky sense of humor to their line deliveries and onstage behavior. A particularly inspired bit of physical humor involves Bundy, in her bra and panties, cracking her knuckles as she waits for Stout's John to get his knives ready.

More important, they're unafraid to dive headfirst into the more physical aspects, both violent and sexual. Even if the knives look a bit stagy up close, Jesse Geguzis' fight choreography is disturbingly real — as is the production's frank sexual content, especially when those blades start making their way around Julie's bare flesh.

Davies eventually does away with the Miss Julie parallels as she guides Smoke to its alarming and red-herring-filled end. It's a deliberately uneasy way to conclude, completely different from Strindberg's intent, but there's no doubt that he'd be very proud, even a bit shocked, by what this new dramatist has to offer.

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