John (Stephen Stout) and Julie (Madeleine Bundy) meet in the kitchen at a Harlem house party. John is an aspiring artist interning for Geoffry, a formerly relevant but still influential photographer. Julie is Geoffry’s daughter, boldly intent on doing nothing with her life. They smoke. It gradually unfolds that they’re attending a bondage party, where scenes involving at least some bloodshed are being played out in the next room. On the surface, Julie seems an unlikely candidate for kink, a girl who smiles shyly and hides around the corner while conducting conversations. And yet, over the course of Smoke, we see that Julie isn’t just a wide-eyed sexual neophyte. She’s an adventurous sort, the type of girl who is more curious than concerned when she finds a potential lover is carting around a case full of knives. Eventually, she asks John to break her, to dominate her, a request that ends up testing both of their subversive limitations.
Director Tom Costello pulls off the difficult feat of staging a play transportive enough to not feel like a play at all. For starters, everything on the set works. There is the dull sound of party chatter from another room. Puffs of cigarette smoke are sucked out of an open window. When John or Julie talk on their cells, we can hear the person speaking on the other end. These features are all the more convincing for being set in an intensely intimate space. It is the kind of play that would lose a lot on Broadway. Not only would we miss the little details, we would be further and further from this excellent pair of performers. Ms. Bundy’s gleefully girlish sexuality is endearing and hilarious. She is able to take potentially innocuous lines like, “It’s funny the people you meet … in places,” and make them laugh out loud funny. While Ms. Bundy is busy floating about the stage, discussing highly adult subjects with childlike candor, Mr. Stout grounds us, laughing at Julie’s oddness along with the audience. His position as our proxy early in the play makes his convincing, sexually dominant performance all the more thrilling.
Even though John identifies as dominant and Julie seems submissive, playwright Kim Davies cleverly undermines the traditional BDSM labels. John consistently seeks reassurance that his knife play with a woman a decade his junior isn’t excessive. He asks if he’s too creepy, if he’s too intense, if he should keep going. Julie, on the other hand, isn’t playing a game and doesn’t ask permission. She shifts the balance of power between them for real, sabotaging John’s relationship with her powerful father and needling at his insecurities whenever she wants to see him turn a shade more frightening. John takes the bait. Ultimately, the act of sexual violence that Smoke builds towards feels a little like an anticlimax, particularly after hearing it described in detail earlier in the play. I was sad to see the play end and sadder still that the only disappointing element arrives so shortly before the house lights flicker to life. Still, if it can’t quite muster being frightening, Smoke will have to settle for being funny, sexy, and compelling.