Smoke is a difficult play on many levels. The characters are gripping, but not at all likable. There is humor, at times, but it’s the kind that leads to uncomfortable laughter. And the storyline subverts audience expectation at nearly every turn. When Julie (Madeleine Bundy) and John (Stephen Stout) run into each other in the kitchen of a Harlem apartment, during a party, they do not meet cute, they are not drunk, and they share no laughs. Instead, their dialog is a bit of a mystery, and their interactions guarded. Then, slowly, the dynamics of the evening are revealed. The two have briefly met before. She is the 20-year-old daughter of a demanding artist and he is that artist’s 31-year-old intern: A girl of privilege and a slacker older man. The party they are attending turns out to be a sex party; nothing too hard core, a “kiddie pool,” as John puts it, in comparison to what might be going on elsewhere in the city on any given night. Still, the two are reluctant to leave their kitchen hideaway. Instead, they smoke, they maneuver, and they connect, sexually and otherwise. When they accidentally set off the smoke alarm with all their huffing and puffing, the siren warns us not of impending fire, but of a smoldering night of turmoil. Fear, failure and a father figure, are the problems they have in common. Control is their solution, and figuring out which of the two is ultimately more controlling is what makes this such a compelling one-act.
John proclaims himself as dominant, but Stout masterfully takes his character through an entire spectrum of passive aggressiveness. He is creepy even as he checks with Julie to make sure he is not being a creep. He touches her gently, albeit with a blade, feigns a violent punch, then pulls her hair for real. When his phone rings, bringing interruptions from the outside world, it becomes clear that his station in real life has little to do with his fantasy world of knife-play. Julie claims she is submissive, in need of a “breaking down,” but by the time their little game has ended, she has seemingly come out on top. Bundy’s sly performance takes a character who at first seems earnest and transforms her, over the course of 75 minutes, into a damaged schemer. By the time she reaches for a final cigarette, it is impossible to tell just how much of what she has revealed is actually the truth.
Given the basic set-up of Kim Davies’ intense script, a couple engaged in an extended BDSM tease, it is hard not to have David Ives’ Venus in Fur come to mind. But a better comparison might actually be to Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. There is the same, demanding off-stage father and the same brought-together couple in a strange apartment grappling with misgivings and desire. But where Lonergan’s alienated boy shows up with a suitcase full of old toys, John, instead, is packing a backpack full of Ecstasy and knives. Director Tom Costello skillfully leads his cast through some very tough material, in a very intimate basement space. Davies’ characters may have lost their way in life, but this production knows exactly where it’s going.
Smoke – by Kim Davies; Directed by Tom Costello
WITH: Stephen Stout (John) and Madeleine Bundy (Julie)
Set design by Andrew Diaz; Costumes by Beth Goldenberg; Lighting by Daisy Long; Sound by Lee Kinney; Fight Choreography, Jesse Geguzis; Stage Manager, Ben Andersen; At The Flea Theater, 41 White Street, 212.352.3101, Through November 9th, http://www.theflea.org, Running Time: 1 hour 15 minutes