Relationships Get a Whipping in Safeword.
S. Asher Gelman's follow-up to his play Afterglow looks at the world of BDSM.
A pair of hands shackled in wrist straps opposite another pair of hands slicing a tomato — that's the image on the program cover of S. Asher Gelman's new play safeword. (the title is styled with a little s and a period). This provocative juxtaposition of a fetishistic image of bondage with an everyday image of meal preparation promises to teach us something new about the world of BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism) and perhaps about how it relates in some way to our kitchens.
There is, in fact, a lot of teaching that happens between characters in this play by the author of the long-running off-Broadway hit Afterglow, including experimentation with the masochistic pleasure of hot peppers. But does safeword. hold together as a gripping, well-written, original play that provokes meaningful discussion about BDSM — or, if not, at least provides some titillation? The answer is No. (Capital N, period.)
Gelman's Afterglow proved exciting to some with its full-frontal examination of a gay threesome that goes romantically awry. That play's primary draw — gratuitous nudity below the waist — is conspicuously absent from safeword., now running at the American Theatre of Actors. His earlier play took few chances with its potentially intriguing topic (polyamory in a committed relationship) and instead gave us the mundane love triangle of three privileged white guys. Sadly, that same aversion to delving deeply into a subject is apparent in safeword. (The title refers to an agreed-upon word between the parties of a dominant-submissive, or dom-sub, arrangement that immediately ends a certain activity, such as whipping, when spoken.)
The play tells the story of two interracial couples who live in the same New York City apartment building. Straight couple Micah (Joe Chisholm) and Lauren (Traci Elaine Lee) are chefs at a restaurant that they own. Micah feels major pressure from his job, while Lauren has learned that being black and a woman could be a liability to the restaurant's success. She becomes friends with Chris (Maybe Burke), a white, genderqueer, Jewish nurse who met their professional-dom boyfriend, Xavier (Jimmy Brooks), at a BDSM-themed Shabbat dinner.
Marital problems are imminent, though. Unbeknownst to Lauren and Chris, Micah and Xavier have a professional, nonsexual dom-sub arrangement with each other, and unbeknownst to Micah, Chris is Lauren's new bestie. So it's a big surprise to Micah when Xavier shows up unexpectedly for dinner one evening. Of course, Xavier can't keep their professional arrangement going anymore in good conscience, yet Micah begs him for one last session. Tragedy is averted when their encounter goes terribly wrong, but the secret comes out, and both relationships are put on the ropes. Will Lauren, who with Chris's help has gradually discovered her inner dom, forgive Micah's lies, or will she beat a new path for herself?
Few will be surprised by the ending of this story, which is curiously banal for such an intriguing setup. Aside from the short shrift given to Lauren's uncertainty about her ability to make it as a black female in a largely white, mostly male profession, racial issues get little attention. Even less time is given to the potentially controversial racial dynamics in Xavier and Micah's dom-sub contract. It's as though Gelman meant to deal with, then shied away from, exploring how race plays into the desire to dominate and submit to other humans, as Jeremy O. Harris brilliantly showed us last year in Slave Play. Instead, safeword. plays it safe with a well-worn story line about how the relationship of a heterosexual couple is jeopardized when one of them lies.
Despite the plot's triteness, the actors do their best to breathe life into Gelman's dreary dialogue. Lee stands out for showing us Lauren's growth from a diffident chef to a confident, innovative businesswoman, and Burke also shines as Chris in a scene where they take charge of an emergency situation when everyone else around them, Xavier included, is going to pieces.
Brooks and Chisholm are unfortunately subjected to some of Gelman's bizarre and unintentionally humorous directorial choices. When Xavier surprises Micah at dinner, the stage is suddenly bathed in a bright-red glow (lighting by Jamie Roderick) accompanied by a loud electrical noise (sound by Kevin Heard). For a moment, we wonder if Micah is being microwaved. Of course, we're meant to understand this electrocuting red light ("red" is Micah's safeword) as a signifier of his intense connection with Xavier, but the effect is more preposterous than profound.
Things aren't helped by Ann Beyersdorfer's scenic design, a miasma of scrim traversing the theater and painted with a city-building design that would not look out of place on a shower curtain. Those sitting in the theater's upper rows have to make out the action that takes place on the set's elevated tier (where leather-harnessed Xavier and bare-chested Micah's luridly illuminated master-slave sessions take place) through this scrim, while those in the front rows have an unobstructed view. Choose your seats based on your tolerance for watching part of the play through gauze.
Gelman does do a decent job of normalizing BDSM, almost to the point of making it seem a little boring, if not ludicrous, and he deserves some credit for trying again to dramatize a mildly taboo topic. But after about 90 minutes, we're relieved when Lauren finally speaks our safeword: "Done."